July 27, 2014:
Twice in July (the 14th and 17th) Israeli Patriot anti-aircraft missiles were used to shoot down Iranian Ababil UAVs used by Hamas to seek out or attack Israeli military targets. This was the first time Israeli Patriots had something to shoot down since the 1990s. Hamas said it used its Ababil UAVs both for reconnaissance and, with the cameras replaced with explosives, as cruise missiles. Hamas also released pictures of an Ababil carrying four unguided rockets. This may have just been a propaganda photo because firing small, unguided rockets from an Ababil would not be very effective.
Iran has supplied both Hezbollah and Hamas with UAVs. The Iranians have been developing UAVs since the 1980s. One of their most successful designs was the Ababil, which was introduced in 2006. Nearly 400 Ababils have been produced so far. This is an 82 kg (183 pound) UAV with a 2.9 meter (9.5 foot) wing span, a payload of about 35 kg (77 pounds), a cruising speed of 290 kilometers an hour, and an endurance of 90 minutes for the first model. Current models (Ababil 3) can stay up for about four hours. The Ababil is known to operate as far as 249 kilometers from its ground controller. But it also has a guidance system that allows it to fly a pre-programmed route and then return to its ground controllers for a landing (which is by parachute). The Ababil can carry a variety of day and night still and video cameras. There are many inexpensive and very capable cameras available on the open market, as well as the equipment needed to transmit video and pictures back to the ground.
The Ababil has been seen in Sudan and Lebanon, where Iranian backed Hezbollah has received about a dozen of them. The Israelis feared that the low flying Ababils could come south, carrying a load of nerve gas or even just explosives. Using GPS guidance such a UAV could hit targets very accurately. That has never happened and Israel tweaked its air defense radars to detect small targets like Ababil.
Ababil should not come as a surprise. There's nothing exotic about UAV technology, at least for something like the Ababil. Iranian UAV development also got a boost from American UAVs received in the 1970s (Firebee target drones). In the last few years Hamas, in Gaza, obtained some Ababils, but these were not seen in the air until the July 2014 war between Hamas and Israel. Hamas claims to have used Ababil frequently to spy on Israel but there is no evidence for this (like recent photos taken of Israeli facilities).
American troops have also encountered Ababil. In early 2009 the U.S. Air Force shot down an Iranian Ababil UAV over Iraq. The downed Iranian UAV was believed to be scouting smuggling routes, to be used to get weapons and agents into Iraq.