By Isah Hussein
Early in Israel’s invasion of Gaza, an antitank missile fired by Palestinian militants struck an armored personnel carrier, killing — by incineration, concussion, shrapnel — at least nine Israeli soldiers.
That Oct. 31 attack, on Gaza’s sandy northern periphery, represented the single largest cluster of Israeli casualties in the ground war. It also showed the evolution and expansion of Hamas’s firepower.
Where once Israeli forces faced stones and molotov cocktails thrown by Palestinians, they now confront weapons such as laser-guided missiles and antitank munitions. Hamas has been “arming itself to the teeth,” one military analyst said.
The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, is now inside Gaza City, fighting Hamas above and below ground — among civilians, around hospitals, schools and mosques — in areas the IDF says are honeycombed with tunnels.
In such close quarters, Hamas fighters have displayed some of their upgraded arsenal: a staggering number of shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenade launchers and antitank missiles, military experts say. Many of the weapons have been smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels, land crossings and the sea during the past decade, from the spillover of wars in Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan, and also manufactured by Iran and even North Korea.
Variations on these weapons also have been assembled with increasing sophistication inside Gaza in underground factories.
Analysts say that Israel has been closely tracking the types of weapons held by Hamas: modern sniper rifles, paragliders, RPGs, “magnet bombs,” suicide attack drones, mini-subs, land mines, antitank missiles and the long-range rockets, which now can strike as far north as Haifa near the Lebanon border and as far south as Eilat on the Red Sea, though still without much accuracy.
A month into Gaza invasion, Israel’s endgame remains a mystery
Hamas and its fighters — an estimated force of 30,000 or more — are so fully-armed and well-trained that its brigades, designated as terror organizations by the United States, resemble “state armies,” said Michael Milshtein, former head of the Palestinian Department in the IDF and a senior analyst at the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
Watching the first two weeks of the ground invasion unfold, Milshtein said, “There is actually nothing new or surprising in the weapons themselves. The main surprise is the quantity.”
Milshtein said Israel faces “a much more powerful Hamas.”
Though there have been calls for more “humanitarian pauses” by the United States — and demands for all-out cease-fire from regional powers — Israel shows no sign that it is stopping its offensive, as its tanks surrounded several hospitals in northern Gaza on Friday and the medical facilities sheltering displaced people came under fire.
An Israeli airstrike hits the Gaza Strip on Friday, visible from southern Israel. (Leo Correa/AP)
Israel’s Army Radio said tanks encircled several hospitals and demanded they evacuate, which doctors have said would be impossible to do safely.
Avi Melamed, former Israeli intelligence official and founder of Inside the Middle East Institute, said Israel will face “very challenging” conditions. “It is a massively armed enemy,” he said, “not a gang of little kids running around with pistols.”
The deployment of large numbers of antitank units by Hamas is especially worrisome for Israeli forces — so much so that the IDF appears to be focusing its intelligence to find targets for air and ground forces to wipe them out.
Every few days, the IDF media office releases information about its troops targeting and killing Hamas antitank commanders. Hamas does not confirm deaths of its operatives, making the Israeli claims often impossible to independently verify.
Yet it is already clear that this war in Gaza — compared to fighting in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021 — is the most deadly.
Israeli bombing and ground assaults have killed more than 11,000 people, many of them women and children, according to the Gaza Ministry of Health. On Oct. 7, the Hamas assault on farming communities, military bases and a rave concert along the Gaza border, at least 1,200 Israelis were killed and 240 others taken hostage.
So far in the ground invasion, 41 IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza, Israel’s military said.
In a May 2021 war, primarily between Hamas and Israel, Hamas antitank missile teams were able to launch strikes that killed military personnel and civilians — proving more effective than drone attacks, said Behnam Ben Taleblu, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington.
“Hamas drones and rockets were intercepted,” he said. “Their unmanned midget subs were stopped. Cross-border tunnel operatives were detected.” But “their antitank forces punched through and landed blows,” he said.
The antitank systems deployed by Hamas include the Bulsae-2, a North Korean copy of the Soviet-era Fagot; the RPG-7, also originally Russian; as well as a North Korean version called the F-7, military analysts said.