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What weapons do Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have and how powerful are they?

Rockets launched from the Gaza Strip, controlled by the Palestinian Hamas movement, are intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome aerial defense system Wednesday. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Hundreds of rockets fired by militant groups in the Gaza Strip have streaked above Israel in recent days, most repelled by Israel’s Iron Dome interceptors, but some have crashed down into Israeli cities.

The rocket fire came in response to a police raid of the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem on Monday, and escalated as Israel retaliated against the opening salvo with a bombing campaign in Gaza.

Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, and the smaller group Islamic Jihad have fired more than 1,000 rockets and mortar shells into Israel since Monday. These projectiles have killed seven people, including a teenage boy and a young girl, according to the Israeli army.

The casualties are a fraction of the 83 Palestinians killed and 487 wounded by Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, according to local authorities.

Israeli troops enter Gaza

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants have fired rocket salvos in the most intense fighting in years. (Video: Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

But the militants’ strikes have destroyed cars and houses and sent Israeli citizens scrambling for shelters. Analysts said the barrage appears aimed at intimidating Israel by showcasing Hamas’s expanded arsenal and testing the Iron Dome system.

“You now have a nonstate actor that manages to strike targets in Tel Aviv using means that they produce themselves,” said Fabian Hinz, an independent open-source intelligence analyst who specializes in Middle East missiles. “In terms of a technological military shift, that’s quite something.”

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What weapons does Hamas have?

Most analysts said that the rockets used in the strikes from Gaza over the past few days used familiar technology, including rockets first fired during the last major flare-up between Israel and Hamas in 2014. However, the way they were used may have changed.

“My impression is that the rockets now used by the Palestinians are not different in technology but different in size to the ones used in 2014,” said Uzi Rubin, an Israeli defense engineer who formerly headed Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, pointing to higher-caliber weapons with heavier warheads.

On Thursday, Hamas military spokesman Abu Ubaidah announced that the group had used a new rocket called “Ayyash 250” to strike near Tel Aviv. The rocket has a range of more than 150 miles, according to Hamas, though the claims have not been independently verified.

Estimates of the size of Hamas’s stockpile vary. Michael Herzog, a retired brigadier general in the Israel Defense Forces who is now a fellow with the Washington Institute, estimated that the group could have 8,000 to 10,000 projectiles.

Some analysts said that it was difficult to know exactly how large the stockpiles collected by Hamas and Islamic Jihad were, but that they appeared to have grown. “Hamas stockpiles are larger than in 2014,” Rubin added, “although they were large enough even then.”

Most are probably short-range rockets capable of traveling only six to 12 miles from the border, Herzog said, but “a sizable portion” of Hamas’s weapons store consists of longer-range rockets able to reach major population centers throughout Israel.

Hinz said that although Hamas and other groups appeared to have been trying to add precision guidance systems to their rockets, there is no evidence they have been successful. “There are some strikes that have hit their targets pretty well,” he said. “It could be that they are lucky shots.”

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Where do the weapons come from?

Hamas has acquired some from abroad, including Fajr-3 and Fajr-5 rockets from Iran and M302 rockets from Syria, according to Hinz, but the group is now capable of producing rockets domestically with ranges of almost 100 miles, technically putting most of Israel within range.

Although militants used to smuggle weapons across the Egyptian border, that route has virtually been sealed off since Egypt cracked down on the practice after President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi took power in 2013.

Although it has become increasingly difficult to obtain fully assembled weapons from abroad, Hamas leaders bragged on an Al Jazeera program in September that they had managed to sneak Fajr missiles and Russian Kornet antitank shells into Gaza via land and sea, al-Monitor reported.

Now, the group produces the bulk of its weapons at facilities in Gaza using homemade and smuggled materials and know-how transmitted from Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

Ian Williams, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and deputy director of the Missile Defense Project, said rocket fire from Gaza over the past days reveals a larger Iranian footprint on Hamas’s weapons program.

“We’re seeing this in just the volume that Hamas is able to put up, the intensity of them, the sizes of the salvos, and the coordination of those salvos, which is greater than we’ve seen in the past,” he said.

What type of damage can the rockets cause?

In recent years, projectiles fired from Gaza have landed mostly in unoccupied fields and forests close to the 141-square-mile enclave. Now they are traveling farther.

The IDF knew that Hamas was capable of firing at Jerusalem, but the group’s move to aim seven rockets at the city Monday took officials by surprise. Subsequent barrages of rockets fired toward Tel Aviv on Tuesday and Wednesday used a larger number of increased-range rockets.

By firing so many rockets in a short span, Herzog said, Hamas seems to be trying to overwhelm the Iron Dome system. The system, which has a typical efficacy rate of about 90 percent, appears to be holding up for the most part. But defending against the rockets is costly; Israel spends tens of thousands of dollars for each Iron Dome interceptor missile.

Williams said he suspects that the accuracy of the Palestinian militants’ rockets has improved, because the air defense system appears to be engaging a larger percentage of them than in the past. The system kicks into gear only when rockets appear to be on track to hit a populated area or key infrastructure.

Michael Armstrong, an associate professor at Brock University in Canada who has studied Iron Dome’s effectiveness, said that according to figures released by the Israeli military, almost half of rockets fired from Gaza had prompted an Israeli interception attempt, significantly higher than in previous conflicts in 2019 and 2014.

Even with Iron Dome, projectiles have managed to break through and hit populated areas, including locations in Israel’s largest city, Tel Aviv, and near Ben Gurion International Airport, causing the airport to temporarily close and flights to be rerouted.

Armstrong estimated that Hamas had been able to cause more deaths per rocket by Wednesday, with one death per 142 rockets fired, compared with one per 1,484 fired in 2014.

Israel has responded with airstrikes that it said had “neutralized” some members of Hamas’s research and development programs, although outside analysts said it was unclear to what extent that would affect rockets.

What is the strategy?

By responding to the police raid and tensions in East Jerusalem with rocket attacks, analysts said, Hamas appears to be trying to position itself as a defender of Jerusalem and rightful leader of Palestinians.

Khaled Hroub, a Hamas expert and professor at Northwestern University in Qatar, said it marked a new strategy for the group.

“This is a turning point in Hamas’s political-military strategy by which it takes up national issues in its own hands, surpassing the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and further challenging Israel,” he wrote in an email.

The militants know they are outmatched by Israeli military might, analysts say. But the strategy could prove politically fruitful for Hamas, particularly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who heads the rival Fatah party — canceled Palestinian elections scheduled to take place this month, a move that frustrated many Palestinians.

But analysts said time is not in the group’s favor, as they burn through their weapons stockpile and Israel shows no sign of backing down from its assault on Gaza.

Under Israeli drone surveillance, Hamas has been forced to fire rockets from underground cells and other hideouts, Herzog said, and as pressure from the IDF mounts, moving and firing weapons will become more difficult.

“Now the tide is turned against them and they stand to lose a lot, because the more this goes on, the more they lose assets,” Herzog said.

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