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Hamas: Taking drone warfare lessons from Ukraine
Drones have long been part of modern warfare. Their deployment has been observed in many armed conflicts in recent years, including in Syria, Ukraine, and Nagorno-Karabakh
Russia's war on Ukraine marked a new milestone in drone warfare. Remodelled commercial drones deemed inappropriate for combat until recently were used for targeted, large-scale attacks for the first time.
Military experts say Hamas used these types of drones to facilitate their 7 October attacks on Israeli border towns. The militants deployed adapted commercial quadcopter drones developed by the Chinese firms DJI and Autel, they say.
A new development
Hamas wreaked serious strategic damage on the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in its 7 October attacks, which killed more than 1,400 people. Hamas is classified by the United States, the European Union, Israel and some Arab states as a terrorist organisation.
Hamas video footage shows drones dropping explosive devices that disabled or "blinded" surveillance towers along Israel's entire border fence with the Gaza Strip. Until now, these structures were considered impenetrable.
To fully understand these attacks, it helps to look to the Ukraine war. Almost from the get-go in its 2022 invasion, Russia deployed commercial drones carrying explosive devices. These days, the weapons are used by both sides.
While in Ukraine these drones are used against soldiers and armoured vehicles, Hamas used them on Israeli military infrastructure. "The way Hamas has used drones is new. We haven't seen that before," Carlo Masala of the University of the Bundeswehr (the German Armed Forces) in Munich told the German news magazine Der Spiegel. Hamas militants closely copied methods used in Ukraine, he said.
Hamas propaganda videos also show drones dropping shells on an Israeli tank crew, even hitting a $3.5 million Merkava 4 tank, which at 63 tonnes is considered the world's heaviest in production.
Liran Antebi oversees high-tech programmes and national security issues at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. She has studied the deployment of drone technology in conflicts for over a decade and closely follows Russia's war against Ukraine. But even she was "surprised by the unexpected and complex use of Hamas drones," she said.
"This proves that, even if they are technologically quite primitive, they can be much deadlier in a complex mission than we previously would have admitted," the researcher told DW.
Terror group IS used drones
The fact that Hamas has drones at its disposal is nothing new. But the group clearly built up its arsenal ahead of the lethal assault on 7 October.
Commercial drones are "cheap, easy to snap up on the market and can be set off from anywhere in a few seconds along a precise route with virtually no prior knowledge," said drone technology expert Yair Ansbacher in comments to the Israeli business newspaper Globes. "But the number and scale of the use of drones in the Middle East does not come close to that in Ukraine."
Antebi recalls that it was originally in the Middle East that such drones were converted for combat purposes — the Islamic State (IS) terrorist organisation used very basic ones against US forces. "Later we saw it in Ukraine, and now we see it here as well," she said.
Hamas confirmed the use of 35 'Zouari' drones in the 7 October attacks. These drones, which are made by Hamas, are named after the former head of the group's drone programme, Tunisian engineer Mohamed Zouari.
Zouari was killed in 2016, his death widely attributed to Mossad, Israel's national intelligence agency.
Who finances the Hamas weapons programme?
Many experts are convinced that Hamas' entire weapons programme is funded from abroad. Iran transfers $100 million to the group every year, according to the US State Department's 2020 Country Terrorism Report. Hamas has never disputed this, but has said the amount is lower.
According to the Washington Post newspaper, Iranian allies have supported Hamas terrorists with military training, logistical and financial aid. Some observers suspect that others could also be involved in the training of Hamas fighters.
"All of them — Islamic Jihad, Hamas and others — get trained in Syria. It is clear that Russians as trainers with unique experience are involved," Ihor Semyvolos, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies in Ukraine's capital Kyiv, told DW.
Frank Ledwidge, a former British intelligence officer with experience in crisis areas, told DW that he expects the Israel-Hamas war to be a high-tech conflict "with heavy use of drones, tunnels, artillery fire and air strikes."