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A drone launched by Hamas and shot down by Israel may represent a new addition to the Palestinian group’s arsenal, but does little to bridge the gulf in military power between the two sides, according to experts.
The Islamist group that governs the Gaza Strip said its military wing sent several drones to carry out "special missions" over Israel on Monday. The Israeli Defense Forces used a U.S.-supplied Patriot missile to destroy one, creating a large explosion over the coastal city of Ashdod and setting off air-raid sirens.
Relatively little is known about Hamas' drones, but experts said their development was neither surprising nor particularly worrying for Israeli authorities.
"There are hundreds of versions of crude, tactical drones that are freely available to purchase, and it would be more surprising if Hamas did not possess and deploy them," said Micah Zenko of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. "Though I would bet, like its rockets and mortars, they provide little demonstrable military utility."
The development came just hours before Israel approved an Egypt-proposed truce Tuesday, the first sign of an end to its bombing campaign on Gaza that has killed at least 182 people. Hamas - which has claimed responsibility for some of the 1,000 rocket launches into Israel that caused little damage and no deaths - said it had not been consulted by Cairo. The al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, rejected the text of the deal.
"The word 'drone' is sexy and it may sound good having a new toy but it does not change things fundamentally"
Despite analysts' assessment that Hamas' drone launch would do little to affect this balance of power, the model displayed Monday appeared to represent an addition to the group's weaponry. According to the al-Qassam Brigades, the drone was an Iranian-made "Ababil-1," a model named after a mythical race of birds from the Quran that drops stones on an army advancing on the holy city of Mecca.
Hamas said it has three models — capable of surveillance, launching missiles, and nose-diving into a target, and it released video footage that it said showed the aircraft in action.
According to GlobalSecurity.org, these drone types have "good stability characteristics with high speed and maneuverability." They also do not need a runway to take off, the website said, instead using a pneumatic launcher often deployed on the back of a truck. Limited information is available about the drone described by Hamas, but another model, the Ababil-3, can travel at speeds of 125 miles per hour and has a ceiling of 5,000 meters, according to specifications on industry website sUAS News.
Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah group used Ababil drones during its 2006 conflict with Israel.
In November 2012, the IDF announced on Twitter that it had destroyed Hamas' attempts to build a fleet of unmanned aircraft. And in October 2013, Palestinian security forces in the West Bank arrested Hamas activists plotting to build drones laden with explosives, The Times of Israel reported at the time.
But while the drones launched on Monday may be an addition in terms of technology, the idea of Hamas having drone capabilities "does not seem that impressive," according to Robert Naiman, policy director at Just Foreign Policy. He told NBC News: "What does Hamas having a drone accomplish that having rockets does not? The word ‘drone’ is sexy and it may sound good having a new toy but it does not change things fundamentally."
Paul Schulte, a visiting senior research fellow in the department of war studies at London's Kings College, agreed: "Drones are probably bigger and more problematic to smuggle into Gaza through tunnels than normal rockets, they are probably more expensive, and they are going to be more vulnerable and easier to shoot down. Their remote controlling could also be jammed by Israel."
He added: "It seems like more of a morale booster than a destructive weapon. The time, money, and effort put into drones might have been more useful putting into rockets."
However, drones could play a bigger role should Israel send ground troops into Gaza, according to Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at New York's Bard College.
"Technologically they won't really upgrade the capability of Hamas," he said. "But what we are seeing is a greater technical ability of engineers in groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in putting together these drones. These aircraft could play a bigger role in the event of a ground invasion."