Smuggled Syrian-made rockets based on a Chinese design have boosted Hamas' 10,000-strong arsenal which is dominated by crude homemade devices, officials and experts say.
A surface-to-surface weapon that struck the coastal town Hadera - 30 miles north of Tel Aviv and 70 miles from the Gaza Strip - is an “M-302 type rocket” similar to a shipment of rockets Israel intercepted at sea in March, the Israeli Defense Forces said Wednesday.
"We understand that there are several other tens of these rockets within the Gaza Strip, that can potentially reach that long distance," IDF spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said.
Militants have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel over recent days, many of them intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system. Nobody in Israel has yet been killed.
Hamas has “about 10,000 rockets” in its arsenal according to Yaakov Amidror, the former national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding that none of them was any kind of "game-changing Doomsday weapon.”
The IDF says most of rockets fired at the center of the country are makeshift, Gaza-made ones.
M-302 rockets were manufactured by the Syrian military and are based on the Chinese “Weishi-2” or WS-2 rockets made by the Sichuan Aerospace Industry Corporation.
“They were made under license from the Chinese,” said Tal Inbar of Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies, which was established by the Israel Air Force Association. He said China’s involvement appeared to be transactional rather than strategic. “If anything, China has closer ties to the Israeli military,” Inbar said. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Forty M-302s were found onboard the Klos-C, a Panama-registered merchant ship that was intercepted in the Red Sea by the Israeli Navy in March. Israel says the weapons would have been smuggled overland, or through a network of tunnels, from Egypt to Gaza.
A United Nations expert panel concluded in May that the rockets seized on the Klos-C came from Iran and were destined for Sudan. They did not speculate on why the arms were being sent to a country that has previously been identified by intelligence experts as a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to other locations in Africa, as well as the Gaza. The report said the Klos-C shipment traveled from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr, and from there in the direction of Port Sudan.
The use of them in the latest flare-up suggests some M-302s were successfully smuggled into Gaza before the ship's interception.
Although some of the tunnels were destroyed by Egypt, some undoubtedly remain, according to Professor Yossi Mekelberg, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme at U.K. think tank Chatham House. “These tunnels are actually pretty big,” he said.
Hamas insists its weapons are locally made. The al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, boasts on its website that it can make its own version of the M-302 – named the R-160 after one of its leaders, Abdel Rantisi, who was killed last decade. An unverified video uploaded to YouTube this week appears to show a militant putting the finishing touches to a weapon. "For the first time, the Qassam Brigades strike Haifa with an R160 rocket,” a statement said Wednesday.
In a 2009 diplomatic cable exposed by Wikileaks, Israeli intelligence officials said they believe Hamas has Iranian-made rockets that were specifically designed to be smuggled through the tunnels for final assembly in Gaza.
Iran insists it doesn't supply Hamas with weapons, including the Fajr-5 rocket which has a range of up to up to 50 miles. "We deny having delivered the Fajr-5 to the Palestinian resistance,” Allaeddine Boroujerdi, head of the Tehran parliament's foreign affairs committee said in 2012, according to the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He added that Hamas was “perfectly capable of producing the arms it needs.”
However, while Hamas has the capability to make its own crude, short-range rockets, experts believe some weaponry must have been smuggled in.
“I don’t know of local facility with the capability to produce M-302 rockets,” Inbar added.
Most of the weapons fired from Gaza are locally made “Qassam” rockets, named after the al-Qassam Brigades. These range from the 2-foot, 7-inch Qassam-1, which can travel no more than three miles, to the 8-foot Qassam-4 which can cover up to 10 miles.
“It is not so complicated to build a crude rocket,” Inbar said. “You need metal parts, some kind of solid fuel which you can get from agricultural products, and then you need explosives – maybe by re-using old landmines.”
He added: “These are not missiles, they are not guided. They are just rockets.”
Al-Qassam has also boasted about production of what it calls the M-75 – a rocket with a similar range to the Fajr-5. (A cosmetic company in Gaza reportedly named a new fragrance after the rocket.)
“Hamas is capable of manufacturing fairly basic rockets on its own,” said Patrick Megahan, research analyst at the U.S.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and manager of the MilitaryEdge defense website. "After all, we’ve seen rebel groups in Syria manufacture some of their own crude rockets with little to no outside help. What Iran and Syria offer is munition of better quality produced in mass, which is harder to do in a garage or basement in Gaza where material is limited.”
While the origin of the weapons is not definitive, it is clear that Hamas has enough firepower to continue to challenge Israel’s defenses. “Firing these rockets is a way of saying it can challenge Israel militarily,” said Mekelberg. “It does not expect to win, but it can still fight a military campaign.”
Ed Flanagan and Lawahez Jabari of NBC News contributed to this report.