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POLITICS

Engineers of death: How Hamas develops military tech with the help of its backers

Contrary to popular belief, Hamas is not just raiders in flip-flops with rusty Kalashnikovs and suicide bombers wearing belts stuffed with cheap explosives. For years, Hamas has been furthering its research and development program, working on weapons of mass destruction and electronic intelligence. Iran is actively assisting the program, but Gaza already has quite a few of its own engineers, nurtured at the local university.

Content
  • Civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip

  • Iran's hand

  • Capacity building

  • Israel's fight

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In November 2012, Hamas aimed rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, cities some 80 kilometers from the Gaza Strip, where the group operates. For the Israelis, this came as a complete surprise; no one there had ever imagined that Gaza could have obtained such a long-range weapon. Before that, Hamas could only hit 40 kilometers deep into Israeli territory, being limited by the range of first-generation Fajr-5 missiles supplied by Iran.

Those Iranian missiles never were in abundance: since the blockade of the Gaza Strip was introduced in 2007, Hamas had to smuggle in Fajr missiles using complex supply chains that involved intermediaries from Libya, Syria, Chad, and several other states (including high-ranking public officials). Among the key participants in this complex arrangement were the Bedouins of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. They were responsible for the final leg of the route for rockets traveling from Egypt to the Gaza Strip through underground tunnels dug by Hamas. A single Fajr-5 missile weighs about a tonne, making its clandestine delivery very difficult. Especially since Israel and Egypt, which joined the blockade of Gaza, constantly monitored all possible smuggling routes and destroyed any cargo found.

Israeli security services rushed to find out how they could have missed the delivery of new, much longer-range rockets. To their surprise, Hamas had assembled the rockets inside Gaza, using only a limited number of smuggled units that were very difficult or impossible to put together in a fully isolated enclave. Hamas believed this rocket, called the M-75, would become what is known as a “game-changer” – a weapon that would overturn the course of the conflict. Thanks to the M-75, Hamas could now threaten not only Sderot, Ashdod, and Ashkelon near Gaza but also Israel's largest cities in the center of the country.

Hamas commanders were so ecstatic about this breakthrough that they commemorated it with a monument to their very own rocket in a Gaza square.

Civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip

Despite the above, the M-75 launches did not cause much damage to Israel. Most of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, and those that reached Israeli towns fell on empty houses whose inhabitants had time to hide in air raid shelters. So it is no exaggeration to say the M-75 has killed more Palestinians than Israelis. And this is not a figure of speech: Hamas' missile program, like almost everything associated with that organization, resulted in a massive loss of life.

The M-75 has killed more Palestinians than Israelis

To begin with, the very construction of the workshops in which the rockets were assembled was a very risky endeavor. Hamas was prudent enough to decide against building these workshops on the surface, where Israeli intelligence would have instantly detected suspicious facilities even from space and destroyed them before they could become operational. Instead, they dug immense bunkers beneath Gaza for their missile program, connecting the bunkers to the system of extensive underground tunnels known as the “Gaza Metro.”

Schoolchildren, including primary school students, were actively involved in the construction of bunkers and tunnels because it was easier for them than for adults to move in narrow underground shafts. As of 2012 (the year of the first registered M-75 launch), at least 160 children had died while building Hamas’ underground tunnels, suffocated or trapped beneath the soil.

The domestic death toll of Gaza’s missile program includes residents who died from infectious diseases rampant in the Strip – primarily, cholera. The epidemics are directly connected to rocket production because the M-75 and other Hamas rockets use water and sewer pipes as the casing. These pipes were officially supplied to the Gaza Strip by Israel but in limited quantities. Knowing what their supplies could be used for, the Israelis carefully calculated how many pipes were required to replace or build sewers in a particular area of the Strip and sent the precise quantity based on their assessment. Had those tubes been used for their intended purpose, Hamas simply wouldn't have casings for their rockets. Therefore, all or nearly all of the pipes went to weapons production, and Gaza's water and sewer systems have not been repaired in decades. As a result, about 90% of all fresh water in the Strip is unfit for drinking, and epidemics, including bouts of deadly diseases, flared up almost every year. There is no telling how many people have died from diseases caused by contaminated water. The count is probably in the hundreds.

Iran's hand

In all appearances, their deaths were nothing but collateral damage for Hamas, as well as its Iranian partners. For years, Iran has been Hamas' main proponent and sponsor, contributing a monthly average of $15 million to its needs. Moreover, it was Iran that supplied the Gaza Strip with small arms, explosives, communication devices, and other military equipment. Most likely, it was also the Iranians who thought it easier to teach the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip to assemble rockets than smuggle them across the Middle East, risking losing the valuable cargo at any moment.

There is evidence that the infamous M-75s were assembled according to manuals by Iranian engineers. Iranians also supervised the construction of assembly shops and the training of future assembly workers.

Apparently, Iran also helped Hamas develop its military doctrine, which envisioned, up to October 2023, first and foremost, exhausting the enemy with days-long rocket attacks on its cities, accompanied by standalone terrorist raids. The plan was that the Israelis, weary of living in constant danger, would demand that their government put an end to the shelling and attacks, even at the cost of making some concessions to the terrorists.

The doctrine also prescribed killing as many Israeli soldiers as possible, even if it meant sacrificing the lives of Hamas fighters too. The allies banked on Israel’s reverent attitude towards its military, which is common knowledge in the Gaza Strip. The deaths of Israeli soldiers made their government more compliant, offering Hamas the opportunity to secure a temporary easing of the blockade and show the people of Gaza another “victory” over the Israelis – even if it was nothing but a truce or a ceasefire.

A fact speaking in favor of Iran’s direct involvement in the development of this doctrine is that “Hezbollah,” a de-facto branch of the Islamic Republic of Iran in Lebanon, followed the same scenario in 2006 during the Second Lebanon War.

Capacity building

Iran has also contributed to curricula for Gaza's educational institutions, including its main college, the Islamic University of Gaza. Apart from Islamic theology, the University taught engineering, construction, computer technology, and even archeology. The mandatory discipline taught across all of its faculties was the Hamas ideology, which fostered an absolute rejection of Israel in students.

Curiously, the Islamic University of Gaza was established in the late 1970s with an eye on the leading Western colleges of the time. One of the most vivid examples of borrowing from the West was an elected student council, whose members assumed an active role in managing the university. For a long time, student council elections were almost the only allowed form of political activism in the Gaza Strip. Not only students and faculty but also the rest of the region followed them with great interest.

For a long time, student council elections were almost the only allowed form of political activism in the Gaza Strip

A few years ago, the author of these lines found himself in Gaza in the days of the student council elections. Hamas-backed candidates won in a landslide. And since rallies in support of these candidates gathered huge crowds, the elections were fair, without obvious fraud and ballot box stuffing.

Hamas indeed enjoyed vast popular support in the Gaza Strip and Palestine in general. While anonymous opinion polls recorded occasional drops in the movement's popularity, its support never dipped below 35%. At least half of eligible Palestinians would vote for the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh, in a presidential election if such an election were held.

Understandably, this level of support made it easy for Hamas to recruit engineers, construction workers, and other relevant professionals into its ranks. Moreover, since the blockade deprived these specialists of foreign employment opportunities, working for Hamas, which remained almost the sole employer for engineers in the Strip, often became the only option.

In general, Hamas' reliance on building its own capacity instead of outsourcing jobs to foreign engineers and developers has clearly benefited the movement. Foreign specialists could have subsequently become easy targets for Israeli intelligence or hired assassins, or could have handed over Hamas’ secrets for a reward. Meanwhile, local researchers – who grew up in Gaza, were taught to hate Israel as children, and couldn't leave the region – proved to be a treasure trove to Hamas.

Aiding Hamas voluntarily or because they had no other choice, engineers and developers have greatly contributed to the terrorists’ activities. Thus, software developers from Gaza created several mobile apps that collected data on Israelis, including the military, which could be used to organize terrorist attacks. The best-known case was the GlanceLove online dating app. Hiding behind photos of pretty girls, Hamas tricked Israeli soldiers interested in dating them into supplying information on their military units, weapons, and logistics.

Software developers from Gaza created a dating app Hamas used to lure information from Israeli soldiers

Another example of reconnaissance work was the Golden Cup app, which masqueraded as the official 2018 FIFA World Cup program. Hamas updated match statistics and posted standings and fresh photos from the stadiums in real time. In parallel, the app collected and sent data the from phones of users who had installed the malware to the Hamas data center. Similarly to GlanceLove, Golden Cup primarily targeted IDF soldiers and officers.

Israel's fight

Most likely, the data center that hosted the apps and collected the intel has already been razed to the ground by Israeli bombs, along with the Islamic University of Gaza and several more Hamas-backed colleges. The Israel Defense Forces is highly likely to begin the ground operation in the Gaza Strip, focusing primarily on the discovery and destruction of underground tunnels and bunkers that conceal all of Hamas’ weapons and equipment for their production.

Will that put an end to Hamas? Hardly. As its leaders later admitted, Hamas had only two dozen assault rifles and a few hand grenades at its disposal in the early 1990s. Most of the organization's terrorist activities at the time were limited to attacks on Israelis by militants armed only with knives. By the fall of 2023, the organization already had hundreds of millions of dollars, thousands of rockets, tens of thousands of small arms, and entire underground research institutes working for Hamas in multiple shifts. Even stripped of all its arsenals and production facilities, Hamas will still possess its main weapon – the ideology of hatred towards Israel.

“There is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by Jihad. Initiatives, proposals, and international conferences are but a waste of time, an exercise in futility,” Hamas' founding document, known as the Covenant of the Islamic Resistance Movement, reads.

Although the Covenant has been rewritten several times, the clause on the lack of alternatives to jihad has always remained unchanged.

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