When Hamas launched its attacks against Israel on October 7, it unleashed a flood of rockets as cover, while militants streamed through holes in the fence surrounding the Gaza strip. One particular clip released by Hamas, played on news stations the world over, provoked a particular bit of paranoia: video of balaclava-clad Hamas fighters standing in a desert landscape, launching a line of suicide drones.
Amid the terror and chaos, the video seems to underscore a long-held fear that Hamas—with the help of Iranian technology—had developed the ability to conduct air strikes on Israel. What’s more, these drones may prove more adept than Hamas’ supply of rockets at thwarting Israel’s sophisticated Iron Dome air defense system.
Hamas had been building this capacity for some time. In 2022, it touted its drone program with an ominous warning: Israel no longer had a monopoly on its skies. According to Hamas Telegram channels, roughly 40 suicide drones have been fired toward Israel since the war began earlier this month. Yet, besides some undated propaganda videos, there is scant evidence that these drones have actually been deployed against Israel—and, if they have, they don’t appear to have done much damage.
Drone warfare has dramatically altered the dynamics in a number of recent conflicts—from Ukraine to Nagorno-Karabakh to Yemen—but not in the war between Hamas and Israel.
Why? The answer could have significant implications for people on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border.
Since the early 2000s, Hamas, which was elected to lead Gaza’s government in 2006 and has held power ever since, has drastically scaled up its ability to hit targets inside Israel.
The earliest versions of its Qassam rocket were rudimentary: lightweight and capable of traveling just a few miles. In each successive generation of the missile, however, they became bigger, capable of flying farther, and equipped with larger warheads.
Over the past two decades, Hamas and Israel have engaged in a race—Hamas, to develop its offensive capabilities and extend its reach; and Israel, to frustrate those efforts as much as possible.
Like more than 20 non-state actors in conflict zones around the world, Hamas recognized that the drones could substantially upgrade its ability to wage war. Unlike its unguided missiles, which are designed to beat Israel’s air defenses simply by overwhelming them, drones are considerably harder to intercept. They fly low and don’t travel in a predictable, parabolic arch. As a number of countries have recently learned, thwarting an advancing drone—much less a number of them—is a tricky problem to solve.