The grainy footage taken by an Israeli warplane shows an alleged Hamas-run drone facility in the Gaza Strip. Within seconds, the building explodes.
Israel’s justification for the attack came hours earlier, when a Patriot missile intercepted a drone as it approached Israeli airspace and blew it to pieces. Islamist Hamas militants, engaged since last week in an intensified battle with Israel, said one of its goals was to spy on Israel’s Defense Ministry.
Though the drone flight ended in failure, Hamas’s drone program has fulfilled broader goals. Hamas claims the drones it can now produce are intended more as a show of strength and to cement support at home than to take on a country with F-15 Eagle fighter jets and a U.S.-funded anti-missile system known as Iron Dome, developed by the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd.
“They want to appear as a sophisticated player,” said Thomas Rid, a professor of security studies at Kings College London. “The drone makes a difference psychologically but not tactically. Look at the operational context in which it was used. Israel has complete military superiority. It’s not a game changer.”
It was the first time a Hamas drone breached Israeli airspace, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said. Israel chose to let that happen while waiting for the right moment to take it down, he said.
Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV aired a video purporting to show a drone armed with missiles flying over land and water. The images were also released on Twitter. Hamas said the drone was one of three it sent to Israel and that two returned to Gaza. Israel said there was only one. The footage couldn’t be authenticated and the military didn’t comment on whether the drone it intercepted was armed.
In Gaza, leaflets boasted of dozens of drones being built in the territory, some for spying, others for firing missiles or “suicide missions.”
Hamas calls its drones Ababil, a reference to a flock of birds mentioned in the Koran that protected the holy city of Mecca from Abyssinian invaders by dropping clay bricks on their army of elephants.
Ababil is also the name Iran uses for some of its drones, and Israel suspects Iranian involvement in Hamas’s program.
“All the technology they have is Iranian-based so if they developed it locally or imported pieces, it is all from Iranian knowledge and technology,” Lerner said. “The investigation is ongoing. We’re investigating the pieces that we pulled out over the sea.” Israel, like the U.S. and European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
Whether in flight or in pieces, Hamas sees the very existence of the drone as an achievement and propaganda tool.
“Every time something penetrates Israeli airspace, or does something for the first time, it’s a symbol,” said Benedetta Berti, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. “They can mark it as a victory from a political point of view.”
Israeli officials have known Hamas has possessed drones since at least 2012, when the sides last battled. At the time, the army released video showing what it said was a successful air strike against a Hamas drone in test flight inside Gaza.
Dealing with enemy drones is not new to Israel. Lebanese Hezbollah militants sent unmanned aircraft to Israel during their 2006 war with Israel and again in 2012. Both were shot down.
Military analysts are unfazed by the recent drone reports, and investors are unfazed by the clashes. The country’s benchmark stock market rose for a fourth day today.
“You can shoot them down pretty easily, and they don’t fly that fast,” Rid, of Kings College, said of the Hamas drones.
For them to be a real threat, Hamas would need a fleet as well as ground control stations to manage them in flight and tap any information they collect, according to Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Getting the parts into Gaza to do that would be hard, because the territory’s borders are largely sealed by the Egyptians and Israelis, who have also destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels Hamas dug into Egypt.
“Right now they are pretty limited,” White said. “They can’t see beyond the borders of Gaza.”
(A previous version of this story corrected the spelling of Benedetta Berti.)