Tuesday 18 May 2021

Gaza Conflict: Hamas’ North Korean Arms

By Joost Oliemans and Stijn Mitzer
On the 6th of May 2021, protests erupted in Jerusalem over a decision to evict Palestinian residents in favour of Israeli settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood of East Jerusalem that under international law is a part of Palestine. Israeli authorities violently cracked down on the protests, injuring scores of Palestinians and bringing both camps closer to the brink of armed confrontation. As protests continued with many more wounded, Hamas issued an ultimatum under which Israel was required to pull back its forces from Jerusalem's religiously sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque by the 10th of May. Following Israel's failure to adhere to the ultimatum, Hamas then commenced rocket fire at Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, which has been the scene of many comparable clashes in the past decades.

In response to the rocket attacks, Israel began striking a large number of targets of Hamas inside the Gaza Strip using artillery and precision-guided munitions launched from fighter aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), starting on the same day. These strikes are so far believed to have resulted in the deaths of close to 200 Palestinians, including several high-ranking Hamas members but also many civilians, reportedly including at least 58 children. [1] On the side of Israel, ten casualties have so far been reported, most of which died after having been struck by Hamas rocket fire. [1]
Hamas' weapons of choice – wielded through its military wing the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades – have so far mainly taken the form of indigenously produced unguided rockets, fired off in large simultaneous volleys in an effort to saturate and overwhelm the Israeli Iron Dome air defence system tasked with intercepting them. As the violence escalated further, Hamas also premiered several other weapons systems including anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) and loitering munitions, both of which have been widely publicised as their use intensified.
Especially the use of ATGMs by Hamas poses a threat that is not to be underestimated. Capable of penetrating the armour of most vehicles in service with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) with high accuracy, the successful use of one ATGM has the potential of causing more casualties than days' worth of rocket barrages. During the latest round of fighting, Hamas has used ATGMs on at least two occasions to strike vehicles along the Gaza border, resulting in the killing of one Israeli soldier and the wounding of three others. [2] In turn, the IDF has been dead set on eliminating ATGM teams before they can fire off their missiles, reportedly so far resulting in the targeting of seven of such cells. [3] 

While Hamas has mastered the indigenous production of unguided rockets, RPGs and even drones (albeit with some components smuggled in from abroad), it is solely reliant on its vast smuggling network and military aid from Iran for the acquisition of ATGMs. Its current inventory of ATGMs consists of systems like the 9M14 Malyutka, 9M111 Fagot, 9M113 Konkurs and the dreaded 9M133 Kornet which Hamas managed to smuggle in from war-torn Libya and Iran, but also includes a limited number of North Korean Bulsae-2 ATGMs. These ATGMs serve alongside the equally elusive North Korean F-7 rocket propelled grenade, small numbers of which found their way to the Gaza Strip as well.

The al-Qassam Brigades is likely to have received its North Korean armament from Iran through an elaborate network of smugglers and backdoor channels ranging from Sudan to the Gaza Strip. This presumably happened in a similar fashion to how this is done with other transports: after delivery to Sudan, the weaponry is transported overland to Egypt, from where its smuggled into the Gaza Strip via tunnels. This theory is further supported by an incident in December 2009, wherein a North Korean arms shipment aboard an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane was discovered and seized by the Thai authorities immediately after landing in Bangkok. [4] The cargo, which was marked as consisting of oil-drilling equipment, contained thirty-five tons worth of rockets, surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS), explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and other weaponry. Another similar shipment was impounded in the United Arab Emirates a few months earlier (July 2009). [4] A large quantity of shipments to both Hamas and Hizbullah (in Lebanon) is believed to have been transferred unnoticed. 
North Korea's role in this scheme thus seems to be limited to being the manufacturer of the armament. Yet, it can be assumed North Korea has full knowledge of their eventual destination. However, with the regime's sole interest in such deals being the hard currency they generate, and increasing desperation driving them to ever more unlikely customers, that should hardly present a problem. Of course, on the customer side, this rather esotheric choice of arms supplier may be surprising as well, with Hamas having no particular prior affiliations with Pyongyang (though the latter has consistently condemned Israeli actions in the region). 
In fact, it is possible Iran sought to obscure its involvement by contracting the North Koreans to supply materiel, enabling them to maintain plausible deniability when the armamanent in question would be spotted in service with Hamas' military forces. The North Koreans themselves aren't too keen on having the origin of their weaponry uncovered either, and they often market weaponry in English using the names of comparable foreign equipment. In Libya, launchers and missiles have been spotted with the inscriptions PLA-017 and PLA-197 respectively, perhaps to give the false impression they originated in China.

More Bulsae-2 launchers and missiles have popped up in the inventory of the al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades, which seceded from Hamas after political infighting

Another type of North Korean munition in service with the al-Qassam Brigades is the F-7 rocket propelled grenade, a domestic copy of the Soviet PG-7 round for use with the RPG-7 (and possibly compatible with Hamas' locally produced variants as well). The F-7 is easily discernible from other PG-7 copies by the red band around the warhead. These rounds have shown up throughout the world, including in Syria and Egypt, the latter of which seized 30.000 rounds in 2017 after a tip-off by the United States that a North Korean freighter nearing the Suez Canal could be carrying illicit cargo. In an embarrassing turn of events, the destination of the illicit cargo was revealed to be the country that originally seized it: Egypt. [5]

In its original design, the 9M111 wire-guided missile uses semi-automatic command to line of sight (SACLOS) to make its way to the target and can penetrate some 460mm of rolled homogeneous armour (RHA), though upgraded missiles can generally by fired by the same launcher. The DPRK is known to have received the 9K111 system from the Soviet Union in the mid-to-late 1980s.

The North Korean system differs in a few key areas. Most notably, whereas the original missile was wire-guided and thus risked its wire getting severed or short circuited when flying over water, the Bulsae-2 is instead laser-guided. Laser guidance also potentially results in a greater accuracy, as an operator has merely to keep a reticule on target to correct the missile's flight. Aside from this, the standard Bulsae-2 does not offer increased range, warhead penetration or a different operating mode, although in North Korean service further upgraded missiles are known to exist. North Korea also appears to manufacture their own distinctly shaped thermal batteries, which likely does not affect the quality of the system.

To Hamas, especially the compact, highly portable design of this ATGM system will be appreciated, which allows for a single soldier to carry the entire launcher while his fellow servicemen carry two launch tubes each.

In the past, North Korea has relied on its foreign relations to provide currency through weapons sales that help the regime maintain control over the country. As a result, exports of ballistic missile and even nuclear technology to countries such as Egypt, Syria, Iran and Myanmar have been oft reported, drawing a lot of attention from international observers. However, as its customer base narrows its qualms about dealing with non-state actors have diminished accordingly, and if the DPRK could secure a new deal with Hamas (presumably through Iran) it almost certainly would do so.
For Hamas, their benefit of North Korean ATGMs and rocket propelled grenades will last only as long as their stocks last, which given the relatively small numbers involved and the continuity of conflict in the Gaza Strip might not be very long. With smuggle routes continually evolving, and Iran now producing ATGMs in several categories which it has been prepared to export to proxy forces in Yemen and Iraq, it seems more likely that the next batches of ATGMs and RPGs to reach Gaza will consist of Iranian examples. This could include the Dehlavieh ATGM (a copy of the 9M133 Kornet), but also the simplified Iranian RPG-29 copies specifically designed for use with proxy forces. In the face of these much more capable systems, that could even pose a threat to Israel's newest armour, Hamas' North Korean arms may seem like a mere historical relic. Yet they serve as a deadly reminder to the ways in which illicit arms traverse the globe, and sometimes pop up where they are least expected.
[2] Jeep hit by anti-tank missile in deadly attack was parked in open view of Gaza https://www.timesofisrael.com/jeep-hit-by-anti-tank-missile-in-deadly-attack-was-parked-in-open-view-of-gaza/ 
[4] North Korean plane carrying smuggled arms seized in Thailand https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/13/north-korea-arms-smuggling-plane
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