The Muslim holy month of Ramadan ended on Friday, signaling the start of Eid al-Fitr celebrations for Gaza’s inhabitants. The faithful fasted from dawn to dusk each day for a month in the heat of June and July, not knowing what the future held for the Gaza Strip.
The members of Hamas did the same. They have received only a few hundred shekels instead of their full salaries for the past four months because of Hamas’s financial hardship. Full salaries are supposed to be paid out this month due to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s decision to resume transferring grants from Iran in light of his agreement with the P5+1.
Yet despite the hunger, heat and financial hardship, the hundreds of workers digging tunnels under the Israeli border, inside the Gaza Strip and on the Egyptian border, kept on with their labor. That they worked at a slower pace was not because of the fast. Hundreds of Palestinians, members of Hamas, continued building the network, including new attack tunnels to reach Israel in the next war and smuggling tunnels to Sinai. The problem they have encountered over the past few weeks, causing a slowdown in the pace of digging, is a severe shortage of some of the materials critically important for the tunnel industry.
Quite a few reports on these tunnels have been published recently in both Israeli and Hamas media. Some in the Israeli defense establishment have a working assumption that, a year after Operation Protective Edge, it is likely that Hamas already has one or more tunnels crossing the border fence and reaching inside Israel.
Hamas’s intense focus on its tunnel project can only bolster this assumption. Hamas is putting an enormous amount of effort, personnel and money into digging with heavy engineering equipment.
So what has been delaying progress in the digging on the Gazan side lately? Mainly Israel’s discovery that material vital to the tunnel industry is being smuggled from Israel into the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom border crossing. Some of it is dual-use material, some material illegal for import that was hidden in aboveboard supply deliveries.
Material for rocket manufacture has also been brought into the Strip via Israel in this way.
Excavating tunnels requires — along with working hands and some shovels — steel cables. Tons of steel cables. And engines, pulley blocks, batteries, concrete or wooden panels, metal pallets and various chemicals.
The manufacture of rockets, meanwhile, requires electrodes, explosive materials and rocket fuel, among other things.
Hamas was managing to smuggle all those things into the Gaza Strip until fairly recently — not through tunnels from Sinai or by sea, but from Israel via Kerem Shalom.
Egypt’s intensive anti-smuggling effort on the border with Gaza and at sea off the coast of Rafah had led Hamas to search for other ways to continue supplying its military industry and its military wing in general. One of the solutions Hamas found was to smuggle in various materials and dual-use items from Israel.
A series of recent inspections and seizures at the Kerem Shalom border crossing uncovered an attempt to smuggle enough rocket fuel for 4,480 20-kilometer-range rockets
The items it required could seem like innocent components of civilian equipment, but could easily be repurposed for arms manufacture and for digging tunnels. So Hamas set up an entire hierarchy of funds and personnel for purchasing and acquisition in Israel and the West Bank. This apparatus receives orders from all of Hamas’s various departments: the military wing, of course, and military outposts, installations, tunnels and arms-manufacturing plants.
Hamas also set up a network of Palestinian merchants in Gaza to buy the goods; some know nothing of their role in the organization while others are well aware of it. Their job is to supply Hamas indirectly or directly with everything it needs: electronics and communications equipment, construction materials and anything else. This network of merchants works directly with Israeli merchants, who receive orders from them which appear completely innocent. One example is refrigerator motors, which the tunnel excavators can put to their own use. The Israeli merchants might also receive an order for wooden pallets, which were brought into Gaza in large numbers until somebody figured out that they were being used to replace the concrete walls in the tunnels.
A series of recent inspections and seizures at the Kerem Shalom border crossing uncovered an attempt to smuggle enough rocket fuel for 4,480 20-kilometer-range rockets. The fuel had been concealed in bags containing a different material.
In another case, also at a border crossing to Gaza, one ton of “solidifying material,” an ingredient used in rocket production, was seized. The amount discovered was enough for 50 80-kilometer-range rockets.
Electrodes, supposedly a simple item used in industry and construction, became one of the most vital components in Hamas’s rocket-production industry. Thousands of electrodes were seized on their way to Gaza — and the source, of course, was Israel and the West Bank. In one case, Hamas used a butter-production facility in Ramallah, hiding electrodes inside butter containers bound for the Gaza Strip. Another original smuggling method was to conceal electrodes in marble slabs from Hebron’s marble industry. These, too, were discovered at the Kerem Shalom border crossing.
The discoveries gave rise to a debate in Israel’s defense establishment: What to do? Do we stop the transfer of goods into Gaza in order to strike at Hamas’s ability to manufacture arms for use against Israel — an act that would increase the hardship in Gaza and increase the risk of a conflict? Or do we continue allowing products to flow into Gaza, with the understanding that there will be a military price to pay?
For now, the transfer of goods is continuing, and at great intensity. Roughly 600 enormous trucks filled with goods from Israel enter the Gaza Strip every day. But at the same time, the defense establishment has heightened its efforts to prevent those dual-purpose materials from getting into the Strip. Wooden pallets are no longer allowed in, leading Hamas to begin chopping down trees in Gaza and taking over civilian wood factories.
Hamas’s purchasing and acquisitions department is currently suffering from a shortage of electrodes and chemical materials. A package of electrodes that until recently cost 60 shekels in Gaza now costs 800 shekels. The price for explosives smuggled into Gaza, once $10,000 per ton, has soared to $70,000.
But even if the price increase has slowed the pace of rocket manufacture and tunnel excavation, it has not stopped them completely. Some of the materials continue to arrive.
The money that the Hamas military industry is spending on supplies, enormous sums in Gaza’s terms, could have been used to pay the salaries of Hamas’s civilian workers — teachers, physicians and so on. The funds for these purchases come from the pockets of Gaza’s inhabitants in the form of bizarre taxes that Hamas has imposed over the past year on anything that moves. According to Israeli statistics, Hamas has spent $30 million on steel over the past two years. In the communications industry, the spending reached nine million shekels per year. Hamas also pays warehouse owners and moving companies some 1.5 million shekels per month (indirectly).
And even as Hamas calls for the lifting of the Israeli blockade on Gaza, it pays millions of shekels per month to business owners in Israel who send it merchandise, completely unaware of the goods’ destination.
The effect of the nuclear agreement on Hamas
Hamas’s motivation to engage in future conflict is linked to several factors, its military capability apparently first among them. In other words, if Hamas had sufficient means and capability, it apparently would not hesitate to act against Israel. The more it gathers strength, the greater its motivation will be to go to war. This means that if Israel succeeds in reducing the amount of dual-purpose materials and stopping the smuggling to Gaza, the motivation that is closely linked to Hamas’s military capability will lessen.
But a slowdown of the entry of goods will intensify hardship in Gaza, leading the population to pressure Hamas to act to change the situation — mostly likely by taking military action rather than stopping the smuggling for its military industry.
There is almost full agreement on the Israeli side about one thing, at least: the construction of a seaport off the Gaza coast, as Hamas is demanding, or of an airport, even with international supervision, would speed up Hamas’s empowerment process many times over.
Inside Hamas, there is no doubt that its military wing has been setting the tone since the end of Operation Protective Edge. So has the more radical faction within Hamas. Figures such as Yahya Sinwar and Rawhi Mushtaha, who dance somewhere on the borderline between Izz ad-Din al-Qassam and the political bureau and take a more militant line, grow stronger. The military wing, which is still commanded by Mohammed Deif, and its representatives in the political wing, is arguing with political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal, Ismail Haniyeh and others about tactics and even about strategy.
One of the issues being debated is Hamas’s relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the possibility of reconciliation. While Mashaal, Haniyeh and others see the Gaza Strip as part of Hamas’s larger project — a takeover of the PLO and the West Bank even at the price of temporary reconciliation with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority and giving up control of Gaza, the military wing does not accept that. In its view (Sinwar and Mushtaha, together with Fathi Hamad and others, side with the military wing), Gaza is a critically important project in and of itself, and control over it must not be relinquished at any stage.
Another issue in the dispute is the direction Hamas will take. Should it grow closer to the Sunni axis headed by Saudi Arabia or the Shiite axis led by Iran? It is quite likely that the agreement reached in Vienna last week on Iran’s nuclear program tipped the scales in favor of the military wing, which wants the more intensive funds and assistance offered by Iran.
A final issue has to do with Israel. While the military wing makes more moderate and pragmatic noises from time to time about the need to reconsider the path of jihad, the members of Izz al-Din al-Qassam view holy war as the only way to accomplish Hamas’s goals, which include wiping Israel off the map. The agreement of the P5+1 with Iran could have a critical, negative influence on this issue as well.