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Hamas antitank strikes show depth of ‘powerful’ arsenal facing Israel

JERUSALEM — 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.

Inside Gaza’s tunnel network: Places for Hamas to attack, escape and regroup

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.

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.

Other systems seen in Hamas videos in the past include the Russian-style Kornet and Konkurs, as well as the Iranian Raad, which is a version of the Soviet Malyutka.

“Together this cocktail of foreign weapons can complicate even the most high-tech of armies in an urban combat scenario,” Taleblu said.

He added: “Expect more, not less, of an emphasis on antitank weapons and antitank warfare by Hamas as the IDF moves further into Gaza.”

During the past decade, many of the antitank weapons were smuggled into Gaza, through the tunnels from Egypt’s Sinai Desert into the Gaza Strip and via trucks traveling across the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, the analysts said.

Yehoshua Kalisky, an arms expert and senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the weapons can be disassembled and the individual parts hidden in food and aid shipments.

Among the antitank weapons possessed by Hamas, some are produced inside the Strip, such as the Tandem 85 warhead, said Amael Kotlarski, a senior analyst and weapons expert at the defense intelligence firm Janes. These kinds of projectiles use two charges to punch through modern armored vehicles. They are Iran’s signature weapons provided to allied militants, such as Hamas, and were used to devastating effect against U.S. troops in Iraq.

The propaganda arm of Hamas has released numerous edited images of militants firing rockets and missiles at Israeli vehicles. While the videos may show fiery explosions, it is sometimes unclear whether the hits have destroyed or damaged vehicles.

Israel has developed a defense to these weapons called the Trophy active protection system, said Ryan Brobst of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. It works by using radar to track incoming munitions and then intercepts them with its own defense projectiles. It’s been largely successful. But — as with missile barrages against Israel’s Iron Dome air defense — the Trophy system can be defeated by overwhelming it with large numbers of projectiles or projectiles fired at close range, Brobst said.

Notably, Brobst said, the U.S. Army received Trophy systems for its Abrams tanks in 2019 and deployed them to Europe.

Kalisky, the Israeli analyst, said that in the 1967 Israel-Arab war, Israel in Sinai needed three divisions to defeat the Egyptian army in six days. Now the IDF has been using the same force for almost a month with very different results in Gaza.

“This is a different war. It is a very difficult war,” he said. “They are equipped.”

Sudilovsky reported from Jerusalem and Nakashima and Horton from Washington. Hazem Balousha in Cairo contributed to this report.

Israel-Gaza war

Israeli tanks, amid explosions and falling shells, surrounded overcrowded hospitals in Gaza City on Friday. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel does not “seek to occupy Gaza,” marking a shift in tone after his previous comments that raised red flags in the Biden administration. Understand what’s behind the Israel-Gaza war.

Hostages: Officials say Hamas militants abducted about 239 hostages in a highly organized attack. Four hostages have been released — two Americans and two Israelis — as families hold on to hope. One released Israeli hostage recounted the “spiderweb” of Gaza tunnels she was held in.

Humanitarian aid: The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it has received over 370 trucks with food, medicine and water in the Gaza Strip through Egypt’s Rafah crossing. However, the PRCS said, there hasn’t been permission yet to bring in fuel to power the enclave’s hospitals, water pumps, taxis and more.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has a complicated history, and its rulers have long been at odds with the Palestinian Authority, the U.S.-backed government in the West Bank. Here is a timeline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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