How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (2024)

ByAbdelali Ragad, Richard Irvine-Brown, Benedict Garman and Sean Seddon,BBC Arabic and BBC Verify

How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (1)How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (2)Telegram

Five armed Palestinian groups joined Hamas in the deadly 7 October attack on Israel after training together in military-style exercises from 2020 onwards, BBC News analysis shows.

The groups carried out joint drills in Gaza which closely resembled the tactics used during the deadly assault - including at a site less than 1km (0.6 miles) from the barrier with Israel - and posted them on social media.

They practised hostage-taking, raiding compounds and breaching Israel's defences during these exercises, the last of which was held just 25 days before the attack.

BBC Arabic and BBC Verify have collated evidence which shows how Hamas brought together Gaza's factions to hone their combat methods - and ultimately execute a raid into Israel which has plunged the region into war.

'A sign of unity'

On 29 December 2020, Hamas's overall leader Ismail Haniyeh declared the first of four drills codenamed Strong Pillar a "strong message and a sign of unity" between Gaza's various armed factions.

As the most powerful of Gaza's armed groups, Hamas was the dominant force in a coalition which brought together 10 other Palestinian factions in a war games-style exercise overseen by a "joint operation room".

The structure was set up in 2018 to coordinate Gaza's armed factions under a central command.

Prior to 2018, Hamas had formally coordinated with Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Gaza's second largest armed faction and - like Hamas - a proscribed terrorist organisation in the UK and other countries.

Hamas had also fought alongside other groups in previous conflicts, but the 2020 drill was billed in propaganda as evidence a wider array of groups were being unified.

Hamas's leader said the first drill reflected the "permanent readiness" of the armed factions.

The 2020 exercise was the first of four joint drills held over three years, each of which was documented in polished videos posted on public social media channels.

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More on Israel-Gaza war

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The BBC has visually identified 10 groups, including PIJ, by their distinctive headbands and emblems training alongside Hamas during the Strong Pillar drills in footage posted on the messaging app Telegram.

Following the 7 October attack, five of the groups went on to post videos claiming to show them taking part in the assault. Three others issued written statements on Telegram claiming to have participated.

The role of these groups has come into sharp focus as pressure builds on Hamas to find dozens of women and children believed to have been taken as captives from Israel into Gaza by other factions on 7 October.

Three groups - PIJ, the Mujahideen Brigades and Al-Nasser Salah al-Deen Brigades - claim to have seized Israeli hostages, alongside Hamas, on that day.

Efforts to extend the temporary truce in Gaza were said to be hinging on Hamas locating those hostages.

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While these groups are drawn from a broad ideological spectrum ranging from hard-line Islamist to relatively secular, all shared a willingness to use violence against Israel.

Hamas statements repeatedly stressed the theme of unity between Gaza's disparate armed groups. The group suggested they were equal partners in the joint drills, whilst it continued to play a leading role in the plans to attack Israel.

Footage from the first drill shows masked commanders in a bunker appearing to conduct the exercise, and begins with a volley of rocket fire.

It cuts to heavily armed fighters overrunning a mocked-up tank marked with an Israeli flag, detaining a crew member and dragging him away as a prisoner, as well as raiding buildings.

We know from videos and harrowing witness statements that both tactics were used to capture soldiers and target civilians on 7 October, when around 1,200 people were killed and an estimated 240 hostages were taken.

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Telling the world

The second Strong Pillar drill was held almost exactly one year later.

Ayman Nofal, a commander in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades - the official name for Hamas's armed wing - said the aim of the exercise on 26 December 2021 was to "affirm the unity of the resistance factions".

He said the drills would "tell the enemy that the walls and engineering measures on the borders of Gaza will not protect them".

Another Hamas statement said the "joint military manoeuvres" were designed to "simulate the liberation of settlements near Gaza" - which is how the group refers to Israeli communities.

The exercise was repeated on 28 December 2022, and propaganda images of fighters practising clearing buildings and overrunning tanks in what appears to be a replica of a military base were published to mark the event.

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The exercises were reported on in Israel, so it's inconceivable they were not being closely monitored by the country's extensive intelligence agencies.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have previously carried out air strikes to disrupt Hamas's training activities. In April 2023, they bombed the site used for the first Strong Pillar drill.

Weeks before the attacks, female surveillance soldiers near the Gaza border reportedly warned of unusually high drone activity and that Hamas was training to take over observation posts with replicas of their positions.

But, according to reports in the Israeli media, they say they were ignored.

Brigadier General Amir Avivi, a former IDF deputy commander in Gaza, told the BBC: "There was a lot of intelligence that they were doing this training - after all, the videos are public, and this was happening just hundreds of metres from the fence (with Israel)."

But he said while the military knew about the drills, they "didn't see what they were training for".

The IDF said they "eliminated" Nofal on 17 October 2023, the first senior Hamas military leader to be killed during the conflict.

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Hiding in plain sight

Hamas went to great lengths to make sure the drills were realistic.

In 2022, fighters practised storming a mock Israeli military base built just 2.6km (1.6 miles) from the Erez crossing, a route between Gaza and Israel controlled by the IDF.

BBC Verify has pinpointed the site in the far north of Gaza, just 800m (0.5 miles) from the barrier, by matching geographic features seen in the training footage to aerial images of the area. As of November 2023, the site was still visible on Bing Maps.

The training camp was within 1.6km (1 mile) of an Israeli observation tower and an elevated observation box, elements in a security barrier Israel has spent hundreds of millions of dollars constructing.

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The mock base is on land dug several metres below ground level, so it may not have been immediately visible to any nearby Israeli patrols - but the smoke rising from the explosions surely would have been, and the IDF is known to use aerial surveillance.

Hamas used this site to practise storming buildings, taking hostages at gunpoint and destroying security barriers.

BBC Verify has used publicly available information - including satellite imagery - to locate 14 training sites at nine different locations across Gaza.

They even trained twice at a site less than 1.6 km (1 mile) from the United Nations' aid agency distribution centre, and which was visible in the background of an official video published by the agency in December 2022.

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Land, sea and air

On 10 September 2023, the so-called joint committee room published images on its dedicated Telegram channel of men in military uniforms carrying out surveillance of military installations along the Gaza barrier.

Two days later, the fourth Strong Pillar military exercise was staged, and by 7 October, all the tactics that would be deployed in the unprecedented attack had been rehearsed.

Fighters were filmed riding in the same type of white Toyota pickup trucks which were seen roaming through southern Israel the following month.

The propaganda video shows gunmen raiding mock buildings and firing at dummy targets inside, as well as training to storm a beach using a boat and underwater divers. Israel has said it repelled attempted Hamas boat landings on its shores on 7 October.

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However, Hamas did not publicise its training with motorcycles and paragliders as part of the Strong Pillar propaganda.

A training video posted by Hamas three days after 7 October shows fences and barriers being demolished to allow motorcycles to pass through, a tactic they used to reach communities in southern Israel. We have not identified similar earlier videos.

Footage of fighters using paragliding equipment was also not published until the 7 October attack was under way.

In a training video shared on the day of the attack, gunmen are seen landing in a mock kibbutz at an airstrip we have located to a site north of Rafah in southern Gaza.

BBC Verify established it was recorded some time before 25 August 2022, and was stored in a computer file titled Eagle Squadron, the name Hamas uses for its aerial division - suggesting the paragliders plan was in the works for over a year.

How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (21)How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (22)

The element of surprise

Before 7 October, Hamas was thought to have about 30,000 fighters in the Gaza Strip, according to reports quoting IDF commanders. It was also thought that Hamas could draw on several thousands of fighters from smaller groups.

Hamas is by far the most powerful of the Palestinian armed groups, even without the support of other factions - suggesting its interest in galvanising the factions was driven by an attempt to secure broad support within Gaza at least as much as bolstering its own numbers.

The IDF has previously estimated 1,500 fighters joined the 7 October raids. The Times of Israel reported earlier this month the IDF now believes the number was closer to 3,000.

Whatever the true number, it means only a relatively small fraction of the total number of armed operatives in Gaza took part. It is not possible to verify precise numbers for how many fighters from smaller groups took part in the attack or the Strong Pillar drills.

While Hamas was building cross-faction support in the build-up to the attack, Hisham Jaber, a former Brigadier General in the Lebanese army who is now a security analyst at the Middle East Centre for Studies and Research, said he believed only Hamas was aware of the ultimate plan, and it was "probable [they] asked other factions to join on the day".

Andreas Krieg, a senior lecturer in security studies at Kings College London, told the BBC: "While there was centralised planning, execution was de-centralised, with each squad operationalising the plan as they saw fit."

He said people inside Hamas were said to be surprised by the weakness of Israel's defences, and assessed militants had likely bypassed Israel's surveillance technology by communicating offline.

Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Israel would have been aware of the joint training drills but "reached the wrong conclusion", assessing they amounted to the "standard" activity of paramilitary groups in the Palestinian territories, rather than being "indicative of a looming large-scale attack".

Asked about the issues raised in this article, the Israel Defense Forces said it was "currently focused on eliminating the threat from the terrorist organisation Hamas" and questions about any potential failures "will be looked into in a later stage".

It could be several years until Israel formally reckons with whether it missed opportunities to prevent the 7 October massacre.

The ramifications for its military, intelligence services and government could be seismic.

Additional reporting by Paul Brown, Kumar Malhotra and Abdirahim Saeed. Video production by Soraya Auer.

How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (23)How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (24)

How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (25)How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (26)

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BBC Verify

How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October (2024)


How Hamas built a force to attack Israel on 7 October? ›

They practised hostage-taking, raiding compounds and breaching Israel's defences during these exercises, the last of which was held just 25 days before the attack.

What did Hamas do in October? ›

On October 7, Hamas terrorists waged the deadliest attack on Jews since the Holocaust — slaughtering babies, raping women, burning whole families alive, and taking hundreds of innocent civilians hostage. Since October 7, more than 1,200 Israelis have been killed.

Did Hamas shoot rockets into Israel? ›

The Israeli army has said that eight rockets were fired from Gaza, targeting central Israel, including Tel Aviv. Hamas says it has launched rockets at Tel Aviv, prompting sirens to sound in the Israeli city for the first time in several months.

How did the Hamas Israel conflict start? ›

The war began when Hamas-led militant groups launched a surprise attack on Israel on 7 October. An estimated 3,000 militants breached the Gaza–Israel barrier and attacked Israeli civilian communities and military bases. Several thousand rockets were concurrently launched into Israel.

How many times has Hamas attacked Israel? ›

Overview. Attacks began in 2001. Since then (August 2014 data), almost 20,000 rockets have hit southern Israel, all but a few thousand of them since Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in August 2005. Hamas justified these as counter-attacks to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Does Hamas regret attacking Israel? ›

Al-Hayya said Hamas does not regret the Oct. 7 attacks, despite the destruction it has brought down on Gaza and its people.

What exactly happened on October 7th? ›

October 7, the day that Hamas attacked from Gaza, was the worst catastrophe in Israel's history. All of Israel's intelligence and operational systems collapsed; all of its political conceptions were proven false. In the space of 24 hours, Israelis lost faith that their state could protect them.

Who started the war between Israel and Palestine? ›

Following the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel on 14 May 1948, the Arab League decided to intervene on behalf of Palestinian Arabs, marching their forces into former British Palestine, beginning the main phase of the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.

Was Tel Aviv hit by Hamas? ›

The Hamas attack on Tel Aviv - the first time in nearly four months that the group has attacked central Israel - came amid an ongoing Israeli military operation in Rafah, which has continued in defiance of a ruling from the UN's top court.

How many missiles does Israel have? ›

Israel's ballistic missile programme, called Jericho, is highly classified. Few details are in the public domain, but the IISS estimates Israel has about 24 nuclear-capable Jericho II missiles.

Was Palestine a country before Israel? ›

While the State of Israel was established on 15 May 1948 and admitted to the United Nations, a Palestinian State was not established. The remaining territories of pre-1948 Palestine, the West Bank - including East Jerusalem- and Gaza Strip, were administered from 1948 till 1967 by Jordan and Egypt, respectively.

Who owns the Gaza Strip? ›

The Gaza Strip is currently under the control of Hamas. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is an independent international treaty organisation with its own legislative assembly. Many of the member states recognise the State of Palestine.

Why does the US support Israel? ›

Bilateral relations have evolved from an initial American policy of sympathy and support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in 1948, to a partnership that links a small but powerful state with a superpower attempting to balance influence against competing interests in the region, namely Russia and its allies.

How many rockets did Hamas fire on October 7th? ›

Rocket fire

Deif said more than 5,000 rockets had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel in a span of 20 minutes at the start of the operation. Israeli sources reported the launch of 3,000 projectiles from Gaza, killing five.

Does Hamas recognize Israel? ›

While initially seeking a state in all of Mandatory Palestine that would replace Israel, Hamas began acquiescing to 1967 borders in the agreements it signed with Fatah in 2005, 2006 and 2007. In 2017, Hamas released a new charter that supported a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders without recognizing Israel.

How large is Hamas military? ›

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades

Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, which makes up Hamas' armed wing, has an estimated 30,000–40,000 fighters. The Brigades, which has existed since 1991, initially relied in part upon suicide bombing campaigns.

What does Israel celebrate in October? ›

Rosh Hashanah - October 3-4

Literally meaning “Head of the Year,” Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of the Jewish calendar. It begins a 10-day period of repentance and prayer which ends on Yom Kippur. We celebrate the holiday with services and apples dipped in honey to symbolize the hope for a sweet year to come.

What did Hamas think was going to happen? ›

Perhaps Hamas thought a surprise attack would widen political divisions in Israel, upend the Israeli government, and sap the resilience and determination of the Israeli people to prevail, rather than produce the unity and resolve the world is currently seeing.

Are Hamas helping Palestine? ›

From its inception, Hamas has overseen a social welfare network that appears to have aided its popularity among Palestinians while serving as a conduit for some funding for Hamas military operations. lethality were unprecedented for Hamas.

How many hostages did Hamas take? ›

On 7 October 2023, as part of the Hamas-led attack on Israel at the beginning of the Israel–Hamas war, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups abducted 251 people from Israel to the Gaza Strip, including children, women, and elderly people.


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