How drones are changing the Israel-Gaza conflict

The simple, low-cost devices used by Hamas on October 7 are proliferating across the Middle East

Nick Donaldson / Reuters
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The Kalashnikov has long been the emblematic weapon of rebels the world over. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat never left his old "Kalash", given to him by Fidel Castro at the height of the 1970s’ revolutionary spirit. Half a century later, the drone could become the emblematic weapon of the weak against the strong.

The elements are similar to the AK47 assault rifle: simple, cheap technology. Not only are drones easy to use for youthful combatants who have spent much of their childhood with joysticks in their hands, but the operational results have been beyond many users’ expectations. Without drones, Hamas would not have been able to blind the Israeli army in the first hours of the October 7 attacks.

For the first time in the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an attack from Gaza was preceded by a wave of suicide drones. They were of the Zouari model, named after a Tunisian aeronautical engineer, Mohamed Zouari, who lent his expertise to Hamas’s military wing, the Ezzedine Al Qassam Brigades, in the development of the Ababi-1 drone programme. Zouari was shot dead in mysterious circumstances in 2016, in an attack that Hamas blamed on Mossad but has not been claimed by Israel.

The Hamas drone strikes were surprising because Israel has always paid close attention to the development of the organisation’s arsenal and has long given the impression, rightly, that its aviation industry had a comfortable technological lead that guaranteed it de facto control of Gaza’s skies. The Israeli UAV industry is one of the most innovative in the world and it likes to present itself as a pioneer in artificial intelligence and big data.

But money and industrial might can’t buy everything. Entry-level UAVs, bought cheaply online for between $2,000 and $3,000, made their first appearance in the region in the 2010s. In the early days, they arrived in Gaza in the form of toys.

As drones became more sophisticated, they were smuggled into the Palestinian enclave hidden in sacks of flour, on the back of petrol tankers or as spare parts in simple travel bags. Parts that were difficult to import were made locally, sometimes using simple desktop 3D printers. In 2019, the first devices flew over Israeli kibbutzes near the Gaza border, where it was not uncommon to find crashed drones. In May 2021, Iranian Shehab drones appeared in the skies over Gaza under the watchful eyes of the Israeli army. In September last year, an enormous statue of a Shehab drone was unveiled by masked Hamas fighters with official fanfare, sending a clear message to Gaza’s people and Israel.

On the other side of the blockade, Israel's operational use of drones began with flights to observe Hamas activities, to fire tear gas at Palestinian demonstrators and to intercept incendiary balloons launched by Palestinian factions.

Israel soon found itself in a strategic blind spot. While it became clear that Palestinian groups were significantly improving their drone capabilities, a military intervention to stop this "air force of the poor" risked a regional explosion. Israel was reluctant to react. There was not much it could do when a Hezbollah drone came close to the nuclear reactor at Israel's Dimona power plant in the Negev desert in 2012. Similarly, there was little Israeli response when Palestinians moved things up a notch by establishing an airstrip in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to accommodate large drones such as the Shahed-129. Fighting a single base may have been possible but tackling a phenomenon that was developing across the entire Middle East was a losing battle.

While Israel has a large stockpile of easily accessible and interchangeable drones, the Palestinian factions have been forced to use theirs sparingly

UAVs have become so common that Jordan's Director of Military Information, Mustafa Al Hayari, admitted last week that drones had "become a threat" and said the country had asked the US for Patriot air defence missiles. The country's borders are regularly plagued by clandestine overflights and Jordanian forces regularly shoot down drones carrying weapons and ammunition suspected of being destined for the Palestinian territories.

Drone use is spreading inexorably across the region. In the war in Syria, it is now routine to hear that a military post belonging to forces loyal to Damascus has been attacked by a drone on the front line of Afrin. The situation is similar in Iraq, where most of the attacks on US bases in the past three weeks since the start of the war in Gaza have been carried out using drones. This is the case of Al-Muqawama al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq (Islamic Resistance in Iraq), a generic name for several pro-Iran militias that share their weapons when necessary to carry out hit-and-run operations.

This poses a challenge to militaries across the Middle East. According to several analyses and public reports that have been published in recent years, including in Israel, this proliferation is not only continuing but accelerating. The October 7 attacks would not have been so effective without the use of low-cost drones. This shows that protagonists do not need US Reaper drones costing $20 million each to make a powerful, modern army tremble.

On October 30, Hezbollah claimed to have shot down an Israeli drone over southern Lebanon with a surface-to-air missile. Israel has not commented on the incident, which shows that the technological gap between the warring parties, currently in Israel's favour, is narrowing. Despite the barrage of bombs dropped on the Palestinian enclave and a sky saturated with modern and powerful air assets, the Palestinian factions still manage to fly drones, both for intelligence operations and for propaganda purposes. Hamas drones, flying at high altitude, have filmed the movement’s fighters emerging from a tunnel, heading towards Israeli positions and opening fire with rocket-propelled grenades.

The question now is whether Hamas can sustain a long-term struggle against an Israeli army determined to destroy it. The encirclement of Gaza complicates, if not prevents, external supplies. Iran has relays in the region that could provide support, but they are engaged in operations in their own areas, such as Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and pro-Iran militias in Syria.

This is an unprecedented situation for Tehran, which has promoted drones in the Middle East by equipping numerous armed groups and sharing its expertise. Iran has been a proponent of using them for surprise and targeted attacks, but this time the situation has changed.

This is a war of position in the ruins of bombed-out suburbs. While Israel has a large stockpile of easily accessible and interchangeable drones, the Palestinian factions have been forced to use theirs sparingly. This is a significant asymmetric air battle in an urban zone, a confrontation that Iranian strategists will not fail to analyse and dissect in an attempt to know how to pursue their strategy of drone proliferation in the region.

Published: November 03, 2023, 6:00 PM