JERUSALEM, ISRAEL — May 23, 2021 — For the watching world, the fourth Gaza war was defined by images of rockets streaking into the night sky. As both sides take stock amid a cease-fire, one data point will leap out at military planners throughout the Middle East: Hamas fired over 4,000 projectiles in 11 days of fighting.
That is a huge increase in the rate of fire compared to the 2014 Gaza war, when Hamas fired 4,500 in 50 days. Just as alarming is the improved quality of Hamas’ arsenal: In the latest conflict, it was able to lob projectiles much farther into Israel than before. Hamas also used so-called “suicide drones” which, unlike its rockets, can be directed at specific targets.
This is part of a pattern developing across the region. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have used increasingly sophisticated rockets and drones against Saudi Arabia, as have Shiite militias in Iraq, against U.S. forces. By far the largest, most advanced stockpile belongs to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which includes precision-guided missiles as well as rockets that may one day be launched from long-range drones.
All these arsenals in the possession of non-state actors share a common origin: Iran. In recent years, the Islamic Republic has supplied these groups, key members of Tehran’s region-wide network of proxies and partners, with tens of thousands of rockets and drones, as well as the technology to build them. In the process, it has fundamentally transformed warfare in the Middle East.
The use of rockets and missiles in war used to be the province of states — Israelis recall the Scuds from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991 — because only they could afford and produce complex rocket components. Based primarily around Russian, Chinese and North Korean technology, missiles and rockets like the Scud, Grad and Katyusha proliferated around the world after their introduction in the middle of the last century.
Iran was a major beneficiary, building an impressive rocket and ballistic missile program while under sanctions, even extending the range of some of its missiles to more than 1,000 km. They also became more precise: After an American drone strike killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani at the start of 2020, the Islamic Republic retaliated by targeting a U.S. base in Iraq.
Until recently, extremist and terrorist groups didn’t have long range rockets. In 2001, when Hamas first began to use projectiles, known as “Qassam” rockets, these had a range of several kilometers. But Iranian assistance, delivered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has been a game-changer. Hamas now regularly targets Tel Aviv, 66km from Gaza, and claims its “Ayyash” missile can reach 250km.
Israeli officials reckon Hamas now has some 15,000 rockets. Some were smuggled in from Iran but most are Gaza-made, with Iranian knowhow. Hezbollah is thought to have expanded its arsenal from around 15,000 rockets in 2006 to more than 130,000, despite Israeli attempts to interdict the IRGC’s supply line through Syria.
The Iraqi Shiite militias have the most direct line to the IRGC’s munitions factories, thanks to the porous borders with Iran. Many of these groups have the additional advantage of state patronage: They are part of the Popular Mobilization Units which were incorporated as a government paramilitary force in 2018. The following year, they were able to acquire rockets and drones to target American facilities on Iraqi military bases.
Through these groups, Iranian rockets now menace a 5,000-km stretch of the Middle East, from Lebanon and Syria, through Iraq and down to Yemen and the Bab al-Mandeb Straits. Within range of this arsenal are Israel and most Western-allied Arab states in the Middle East, as well as a number of U.S. military outposts — not to mention some of the world’s most vital trade routes.
If the Gaza war showcased the increasing threat of Iranian rockets, Israel’s response to Hamas’ attacks demonstrated the difficulties of defending against them. The sheer volume of incoming projectiles means that some got through the Iron Dome missile-defense system; 12 Israelis were killed. For military planners across the Middle East, that’s another disturbing data point.
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Seth J. Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.