BICOM Focus: Hamas’s weapons smuggling


Key points

  • Weapons smuggled by Hamas into Gaza and then continuously fired at Israeli communities caused the launching of Operation Cast Lead into Gaza last December.
  • A year after the operation, Hamas continues to renew its weapons stockpile, relying mostly on a complex international smuggling network supported by Iran.
  • The large scale of the operation and the involvement of numerous parties in several countries highlight the immense challenge of preventing these activities.
  • New legal, financial and military measures have been instated by various international actors in the past year. However, serious gaps still exist in the available policy tools to deal with arms transfers to terror groups throughout the Middle East.


Since Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August 2005 Hamas and other terror groups have embarked on an escalated smuggling operation that has turned the Gaza Strip into a heavily armed entity. Using their close links to Iranian patrons and to other networks of international smuggling, Hamas has created an elaborate system of tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border through which it transports weapons and operatives, as well as many other items like fuel, livestock and money. Over 3000 rockets and mortars shells were fired at Israeli communities close to Gaza in the year that preceded the launching of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008. Having acquired Katyusha rockets with the help of Iran, the range of rockets reached 40km, bringing nearly one million Israelis within range.

The military operation drastically cut the number of rockets and mortars fired, with less that 200 fired since its conclusion in January. However, Hamas has made active efforts to renew and upgrade its weapons stockpile. According to IDF Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Amos Yadlin, Hamas has test-fired a rocket with a range of 60km, which could strike Tel Aviv. 

The conclusion of the fighting between Israel and Hamas earlier this year was marked by an international commitment to act against the smuggling of weapons. The following briefing examines the situation that prevailed since then and the consequence for stability and security in the region.

Weapons smuggling into Gaza: An international operation

At least five cargo ships carrying arms to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraqi insurgents have been seized this year. In three cases, the contraband included North Korean or Chinese made components for rockets such as the 122mm Grad, which has a range of up to 25 miles and which Hamas and Hezbollah have fired into Israel.[1] Recently, Israel intercepted the Francop, a vessel carrying 500 tons of weapons intended for Hezbollah. In January, the US Navy stopped another vessel, the Monchegorsk, in the Red Sea with weapon components.[2] The ship was chartered by Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL), which is blacklisted for its proliferation activities by the UK and the US.

While cargo ships have been used to transport large quantities of weapons, intelligence sources have confirmed that smugglers often unload cargo ships in remote destinations and continue the journey by land, in order to minimise chances of exposure. According to media reports, smuggling convoys in Sudan carrying weapons destined for Hamas were targeted by Israeli fighter-bombers and unmanned drones in March.[3] The convoys were believed to be carrying Fajr3 rockets, with a range of more than 40 miles.[4]

The incidents shed light on the smuggling route that begins in Iran and ends in the Gaza Strip. Iranian shipments use commercial liners heading to Port Sudan or other ports in east Africa. From there, the Iranians use smugglers’ networks to transfer the weapons across Egypt’s southern border and up into the Sinai Peninsula. With the assistance of local Bedouin smugglers, Hamas then take charge of the weapons and transfer them into Gaza under the Gaza-Egypt border.

The length of the route and the involvement of numerous parties in several countries highlight the immense challenge of preventing these activities. Hamas forms one link in an international network that takes advantage of unstable regions like the Horn of Africa and failed-states like Yemen and Eretria to ensure the flow of weapons from sponsoring states to client organisations.

The challenge of smuggling prevention

The United Nations Security Council has adopted several resolutions to halt the clandestine flow of weapons into the hands of terror groups in the Middle East. Two UN Security Council resolutions, UNSCR 1701 which ended the Second Lebanon War in August 2006 and UNSCR 1860 passed on 8 January 2009, have directly addressed the need to prevent the trafficking of arms to Hezbollah and Hamas respectively. Four additional Security Council resolutions (UNSCR 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835) impose limitations and restrictions on Iranian weapons’ trade. However, the actual implementation of the resolutions is limited.

In mid-January 2009, as Operation Cast Lead was nearing its end, then Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the US Administration to ensure the prevention of arms smuggling into Gaza as part of the ceasefire agreement. This was the most explicit international commitment to act on this matter. The US pledged to work with regional and NATO partners to address the problem. The leaders of Britain, France, Germany and other EU states also pledged their support for curbing the smuggling. They did so firstly in a public meeting with Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem immediately after the conflict[5], then through specially organized conferences in Copenhagen and London.[6]

Coordinating effective action, however, has been problematic. As cases in the past year indicate, serious gaps still exist in the available policy tools to deal with Iranian arms transfers to its allies and surrogates.

Since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, Israel has worked with allies to address the smuggling problem by tackling two interlinked ‘circles of operation’. The broader circle is the early stages of weapons shipment from Iranian ports to East Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Arab Peninsula. To effectively monitor this vast and complex area, there is continual sharing of intelligence and active cooperation between Israel and US and European military forces, largely out of the public eye.[7]

The second circle of operation includes the targeting and prevention of smuggling by Egypt. In September 2005, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip and gave Egypt control of the 8.7-mile Gaza-Egypt border. At present, much of Israel’s security depends on Egypt’s action to secure that corridor and successfully halt arms smuggling into Gaza. Prior to Egypt’s takeover of the corridor in September 2005, approximately one tonne of arms were smuggled across the border each year. After the withdrawal, Israeli intelligence sources estimate that 250 tonnes of explosives, 4,000 RPGs, and 1,800 rockets crossed the border up to the end of 2008.[8]

Since the conclusion of Operation Cast Lead, Egypt has increased its efforts against arms smuggling. In April, Egypt exposed a network of Hezbollah operatives which were assisting the smuggling operation into Gaza and allegedly planning to carry out a terror attack against Egyptian and Israeli targets. The threat of Iranian proxies operating on Egyptian soil undoubtedly alarmed Cairo.  The US has helped Egypt to respond by training Egyptian troops on how to detect and destroy tunnels.[9] It has now also been revealed that the US is helping Egypt build a metal wall to be buried beneath the Gaza-Egypt border to stop the operation of the smuggling tunnels.[10]

Whilst international efforts to stop the flow of weapons have increased in the past year, to close the gaps that allow the flow of weapons into Gaza to continue, the international community would have to act on several levels. US backed Egyptian activities to prevent weapons from crossing the border into Gaza must be complemented with efforts to tackle the Iranian supply chain. As one US expert recently suggested, the EU could expand its current policy banning the sale or transfer of arms to Iran to include a tougher ban on arms export from Iran. In addition, restricting the activities of Iranian companies that finance or assist in the smuggling process could also help curb the flow of weapons into the strip. The recent UK decision to ban British firms from doing business with IRISL, the Iranian shipping company, is an important step in this direction, and one that ought to be expanded to the whole of the EU.

There is good chance that in the near future the UN Security Council will consider a new sanctions resolution against Iran. If it does so, attention must be paid not only to the extent of the sanctions on paper, including measures dealing with weapons trade and Iranian entities involved in that trade, but to adequate measures to ensure enforcement.  Iran is likely to remain determined to continue its supply of weapons to its proxies and allies and the US and EU will have to maintain equal levels of determination to stop this destabilising practice.


The year that passed since the eruption of violence Between Israel and Hamas have seen significant improvement in international and regional efforts to prevent weapons from reaching terror groups in Gaza. Importantly, new measures have been introduced to tackle the Iranian source of these weapons. However, more will need to be done in the coming years to ensure that Hamas is not allowed to obtain additional weapons that could again destabilise the fragile calm that has ensued since January 2009. For it to succeed, this challenge must be addressed by a broad international coalition and by a combination of legal, financial and military measures. The success of this endeavour is a vital part of promoting stability and security for residents on both sides of the Israeli-Gaza border. 


Joby Warrick, ‘Arms smuggling heightens Iran fears,’ Washington Post, 3 December 2009


‘Cyprus unloads ‘Gaza arms’ ship,’ BBC Online, 13 February 2009


Yaacov Katz, ‘Intel-sharing stems arms-flow to Gaza,’ Jerusalem Post, 15 September 2009


Uzi Mahanaimi, ‘Israeli drones destroy rocket-smuggling convoys in Sudan,’ Times, 29 March 2009


Statement by PM Olmert and European leaders, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 18 January 2009


Anti-smuggling conference – final communiqué, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 13 March 2009


Yaacov Katz, ‘Intel-sharing stems arms-flow to Gaza,’ Jerusalem Post, 15 September 2009


Yoram Cohen and Matthew Levitt, ‘Hamas Arms Smuggling: Egypt’s Challenge,’ Washington Institute for Near East Studies, 2 March 2009


Roni Sofer, ‘Smuggling to Gaza continues, says Shin Bet chief,’ Ynetnews, 29 March 2009


Egypt starts building steel wall on Gaza Strip border, BBC News, 9 December 2009