What Air Defence Capabilities Does Gaza Have? New Footage Shows Islamic Jihad Missile Attack on Israeli Hermes 450 Drone

New footage released from the Gaza Strip has show a militiaman from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group deploy a Strela-2 handheld surface to air missile system to engage an Israeli Air Force Hermes 450 drone. The Islamic Jihad militia group remains a distinct entity from Hamas which rules the Gaza Strip, and has been considered a more effective fighting force. Unlike Hamas, the group has not formed ties with nor received funding from American regional allies such as Qatar or Turkey, and has been seen by Israeli sources to pose a significantly greater security threat. The filmed engagement comes as Israel has made extensive use of air power to provide a significant advantage over Palestinian forces, with carpet bombing of northern Gaza having paved the way for a ground offensive in which hostilities are still ongoing.

Palestinian militias have themselves made unprecedented use of air power in the conflict, including using drones to drop grenades on both troop concentrations and Israeli tanks. For closer air support and reconnaissance missions Israel has relied on drones such as the Hermes 450 to support operations, with the aircraft not only avoiding placing personnel at risk, but also not relying on overseas parts as manned combat aircraft imported from the United States have, while benefitting from much lower maintenance needs and operational costs. The Hermes 450 lacks stealth capabilities and is a relatively basic drone design, but is prized for its low cost and its ability to be configured with an electronic warfare suite, electro-optical sensors, electronic intelligence systems, a synthetic-aperture radar, and ground-moving target indicators.

Hermes 450 drones in the Israeli fleet have been involved in strikes on government targets in both Syria and Sudan, as well as multiple engagements with Hezbollah and various Palestinian groups. A Hermes 450 was confirmed to have been shot down by Hezbollah on November 5, with three having been lost in 2006 during engagements with the militia under unclear circumstances. The drone class has been the Israeli aviation industry’s most successful export product and is currently operated by 12 foreign counties, albeit primarily developing countries with smaller defence budgets. The Gaza Strip’s air defences remain highly limited, and are primarily reliant on derivatives of the Soviet 9K32 Strela-2 system which began to enter service over 50 years ago in 1970, allowing lower end drones to operate without a high attrition rate. Although Hamas reported in October 2023 that a Strela-2 system was used to bring down an Israeli Air Force helicopter, this remains unconfirmed. 

The Strela system was in the 1970s widely considered the most advanced in the world, and its more capable successor the 9K38 Igla has gained a number of successes shooting down Russian combat aircraft over Ukraine. Its main advantages have included much better resistance to countermeasures and a far wider engagement envelope. Succeeding the Igla system, the 9K333 Verba entered service in the Russian Army in 2011 with far superior sensors and resistance to countermeasures, although no use by non-state actors is known. With the older Strela thus now more than two full generations behind the cutting edge, its effectiveness against Israeli aircraft remains uncertain. Although Israeli sources have claimed more modern systems, namely 9K38 Iglas, have been delivered to Palestinian militias, this remains uncertain. While North Korea has since the end of the Cold War been a leading proliferator of more capable handheld air defence systems to Israeli adversaries, and Korean anti tank missiles have been used by Palestinian militia groups, air defence systems such as the Korean HT-16PGJ, widely used by the Syrian Army, have not been sighted in Gaza.