UNITED STATES NEWS

Hamas fights with a patchwork of weapons built by Iran, China, Russia and North Korea

Jan 15, 2024, 7:44 AM

In this image from body camera video during the Oct. 7, 2023, surprise attack on Israel, a Hamas fi...

In this image from body camera video during the Oct. 7, 2023, surprise attack on Israel, a Hamas fighter holds a Russian-designed 9M32 Strela anti-aircraft missile. An Associated Press analysis of more than 150 videos and photos taken in the three months of combat since Hamas launched its Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel shows the militant group has amassed a diverse patchwork arsenal of weapons from around the world – much of it smuggled past a 17-year blockade that was aimed at stopping just such a military buildup. (South First Responders via AP)
Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS

(South First Responders via AP)

Iranian sniper rifles. AK-47 assault rifles from China and Russia. North Korean- and Bulgarian-built rocket-propelled grenades. Anti-tank rockets secretly cobbled together in Gaza.

An Associated Press analysis of more than 150 videos and photos taken in the three months of combat since Hamas launched its Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel shows the militant group has amassed a diverse patchwork arsenal of weapons from around the world – much of it smuggled past a 17-year blockade that was aimed at stopping just such a military buildup.

Those weapons have proved deadly during weeks of intense urban warfare in Gaza, where Hamas fighters are typically armed only with what they can carry and employ hit-and-run tactics against lopsided Israeli advantages in arms and technology. Hamas propaganda videos posted over the past few weeks appear to show the shootings of Israeli soldiers recorded through the scopes of sniper rifles.

“We are searching everywhere for weapons, for political support, for money,” Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad recently said in an interview with the AP, declining to discuss specifically who has been providing its weapons or how they were snuck into Gaza.

Experts who reviewed the images for AP were able to identify distinguishing features and markings that show where many of the weapons wielded by Hamas fighters were manufactured. But such an analysis does not provide evidence of whether they were provided by the governments of those countries or purchased in a thriving Middle East black market, with weapons and components listed for sale on social media in such war-torn countries as Iraq, Libya and Syria.

What is clear, however, is that many of the images show Hamas militants toting weapons that appear to be relatively new, evidence the group has found ways of getting arms past the air-and-sea blockade of the Gaza Strip — possibly by boat, through tunnels or concealed in shipments of food and other goods.

“The majority of their arms are of Russian, Chinese or Iranian origin, but North Korean weapons and those produced in former Warsaw Pact countries are also present in the arsenal,” said N.R. Jenzen-Jones, an expert in military arms who is director of the Australian-based Armament Research Services. 

Despite the buildup, Israel maintains a massive advantage, with a powerful array of modern tanks, artillery, helicopter gunships and an air force of U.S.-made fighter jets. Israel’s military says it has killed more than 7,000 Hamas militants, compared to the deaths of at least 510 of its own soldiers, more than 330 of whom were killed in Hamas’ initial attack. The Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says more than 23,000 Palestinians have died in the fighting, though it does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.

Imagery reviewed by the AP showed a Hamas arsenal featuring weapons ranging from small arms and machine guns to shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and craft-produced anti-tank projectiles.

Among the most distinctive is the oversized AM-50 Sayyad (Arabic for “hunter”), an Iranian-made a sniper rifle that fires a .50- caliber round powerful enough to punch through up to an inch of steel. It has previously been spotted on battlefields in Yemen, Syria, and in the hands of Shia militias in Iraq.

Hamas fighters have also been seen carrying an array of Soviet-era weapons that have been copied and manufactured in Iran and China. They include variants of the Russian-designed 9M32 Strela, a portable heat-seeking anti-aircraft missile system.

Jenzen-Jones said a grip stock on one of the missile launchers a fighter was seen holding is distinctive to a variant manufactured in China and used by the Iranian military and its allies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, a group closely aligned with Hamas.

Weapons recovered from Hamas fighters by the Israel Defense Forces include what appear to be Italian-designed TC/6 anti-tank mines. However, Seán Moorhouse, a former British Army officer and explosive ordinance disposal expert, said it too had been copied by Iran’s arms industry.

The Israel Defense Forces and U.S. officials have long accused Iran of supplying money, training and weapons to Hamas and allied militants in Gaza, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. 

Iranian representatives at the United Nations did not respond to emails from the AP about whether their government supplied weapons to Hamas, including AM-50 Sayyad sniper rifles. However, a week after AP sought comment, Hamas posted a video purporting to show militants in Gaza using machining equipment to make their own copies of the rifle.

Master gunsmith Don Fraley reviewed that Dec. 20 video and said it would be nearly impossible for Hamas to manufacture a safe and accurate .50-caliber sniper rifle with the rudimentary equipment shown.

“You’re going to have to be a rock star at machine shop work. And I didn’t see any of that,” said Fraley, a former U.S. Army Special Forces soldier and sniper for the Kentucky State Police. “These folks are just trying to cover their tracks.”

An Israeli military official familiar with Hamas’ arsenal said the group uses a combination of smuggled “off-the-shelf” weaponry, including AK-47s, RPGs and anti-aircraft missiles, as well as a large collection of home-grown weapons often made with easily accessible civilian materials.

For instance, the official said, the group uses lathes to shape metal into rockets and mortars, and fits them with explosives manufactured from fertilizers. Other home-made weapons include a launcher capable of firing 14 rockets simultaneously and the “Zuwari” drone, an explosives-laden aircraft that was used to strike Israeli observation towers and knock out cameras on Oct. 7.

“There is a huge military/defense industry inside the Gaza Strip,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under military briefing rules.

The official said most of the smuggled weapons are believed to have been brought in through Egypt and are generally easy to purchase and did not need to be supplied by the country of origin.

One such weapon seen in the hands of Hamas fighters is a version of Chinese machine guns known as the Type 80, a model that has also been copied by the Iranians and renamed as the PKM-T80.

Jonathan Ferguson, the curator of firearms at the Royal Armouries Museum in England, said from what he could see from the photos and videos, versions of the gun made in China and Iran were so similar as to be indistinguishable.

Ferguson was also able to identify a rocket-propelled grenade with marks showing it was made in Bulgaria. AP previously reported Hamas used RPGs with a distinctive red stripe indicating they were made in North Korea.

Among the more sophisticated Hamas home-grown weapons is a copy of a Russian anti-tank rocket called the PG-7VR, which is specifically designed to defeat reactive-armor systems like those used on Israel’s Merkava Mark VI main battle tanks. Such tanks are covered with explosive-filed plates that explode outwards to disrupt incoming projectiles.

In propaganda videos posted in October, masked militants are seen assembling a version of the Russian rocket that Hamas has renamed the Al-Yasin 105, in honor of the group’s founder killed in an Israeli air strike in 2004. While the original Russian version can melt through up to two feet of steel armor, experts say it’s not clear whether the home-brewed explosives in the Hamas knock-off are as potent.

Hamas has posted multiple videos of fighters firing the rockets at Israeli tanks and armored personal carriers. Those videos are typically cut off after the warhead explodes, making it impossible to independently verify whether the target was destroyed.

Also, in a tactic borrowed from the battlefields of Ukraine, Hamas appears to have obtained or copied Iranian-designed drones that pack warheads that explode when crashed into their targets. Off- the-shelf, Chinese-made quadcopter drones have also been adapted to drop explosives on tanks and troops.

“The availability of commercial off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicles, these light consumer drones, has radically changed warfare in recent years,” Jenzen-Jones said. “We’ve seen them, obviously, in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Ukraine, and now in Gaza.”

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Biesecker reported from Washington. AP writer Josef Federman contributed from Jerusalem.

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Contact AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org or https://www.ap.org/tips/

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Hamas fights with a patchwork of weapons built by Iran, China, Russia and North Korea