Palestinian Hamas masked gunmen parade with a drone on the back of a truck through the streets of a town in the southern Gaza Strip last month. Photo: AP
Alessandro Arduino
Alessandro Arduino

Will the next Israel-Hamas conflict be remote-controlled?

  • In the recent 11-day conflict, Hamas launched several drones together with 4,000 rockets aimed at Israel
  • The playbook for future conflict will almost certainly include the launch of suicide drones aimed at swarming Israel’s anti-missile defence system

A Hamas propaganda video which made the rounds during its recent conflict with Israel showed a drone getting ready for action. The video is a harbinger of what the next armed clash between the two sides will bring.

After the most recent round, which ended on May 21 with a ceasefire after 11 days of warfare that killed more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis, including children, both sides claimed tactical victory. Buried among the rubble in Gaza were the remnants of a two-state solution to the intractable conflict.

The proliferation of combat Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and loitering munitions, better known as suicide drones, is not news in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia’s failure to intercept Houthi suicide drones, which have been wreaking havoc on its oilfields – with the most recent strikes occurring in April – is a case in point.

US to make greater use of drones to spy on China, experts say

The Houthis use drones based on Iranian models. General Frank McKenzie, the head of the US military’s Central Command, whose area of responsibility includes the Middle East, has raised the alarm over this battlefield development. Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on April 20, he said that “for the first time since the Korean war, we are operating without complete air superiority”.

While the most advanced and expensive armed UAVs originate in the US and Israel, newcomers like Turkey are flooding the zone with cheaper versions that have already been battle-tested in conflicts from Libya to the Caucasus.

In the fight between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish combat drones proved to be a game-changer. The craft were, in essence, a relatively cheap off-the-shelf air force for Baku, and were used to great advantage against Armenian armour and other targets.


‘We lost everything’: Gazans pick up pieces after conflict between Israel and Hamas ends

‘We lost everything’: Gazans pick up pieces after conflict between Israel and Hamas ends

Hamas has been learning the lessons. During the recent conflict, several drones were launched along with the 4,000 rockets aimed at Israel. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) were prepared – Israel is the inventor of modern drone warfare doctrine, after all – and fighter jets and loitering UAVs of its own were in the air, prepared to hit Hamas operators pre-take-off.

As a result, Hamas achieved limited results. But these sorties were also a test run for the next round: the playbook for future conflict will almost certainly include the launch of suicide drones aimed at swarming the Israeli anti-missile defence system, Iron Dome, which performed creditably by intercepting a reported 90 per cent of Hamas missiles.

UN to launch investigation of possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza

During the recent conflict, Israel claimed some success in destroying Hamas’ network of tunnels, which are used for smuggling rocket parts and other contraband, as well as for infiltration into enemy territory.

It is not inconceivable that Hamas will turn to drones as a supply line for items it wants to get its hands on. Drones have been highly effective in delivering illegal goods in other parts of the world – reports of prison inmates around the world receiving mobile phones and narcotics by air are rampant.

UAVs will give Hamas capabilities it does not have now, even though Israel may be able to negate much of its advantage by deploying microwaves, lasers, and communications jammers.


Israel and Hamas agree on truce to end 11-day war

Israel and Hamas agree on truce to end 11-day war

Nevertheless, Hamas does not lack ingenuity, and could use its drones in urban areas to devastating effect, as a target acquisition reconnaissance tool, or even for propaganda purposes. Drone capability itself is an advantage: UAVs are cheap, defending against them is not.

The Iranian proxy network from Yemen, Iraq, Syria, to Lebanon benefits from its benefactor’s proficiency in drone warfare. The Palestinian territories could follow shortly. If this happens, the threshold for conflict will be lowered considerably. A targeted killing by a suicide drone, for example, would invoke a war. Even more dangerous, drones give an attacker a false sense of security – the battlefield is remote, giving operators the perception of invulnerability.

During the 11-day confrontation, Hamas seized the opportunity to paint itself as the protector of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, and gained no small measure of support in return. This could embolden it to push the envelope, particularly as Israel’s domestic situation remains unstable despite reported progress in recent days.

Meanwhile, Iran is not standing idly by. To add to the signs of foreboding, the Islamic Republic has just unveiled a new long-range combat drone. Its name? Gaza.

Dr Alessandro Arduino, who is the Principal Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, specialises in asymmetric warfare