With an army of 27,000, Hamas terror chief Deif readies Gaza for war
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AnalysisHundreds of gunmen are being trained to carry out attacks inside Israeli territory

With an army of 27,000, Hamas terror chief Deif readies Gaza for war

The Strip's Islamist regime may not want conflict yet, but its 'chief of staff' is preparing for one. And some believe it is better equipped today than it was in 2014

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Gunmen from the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, stand guard during a parade marking the ruling Islamist terror movement's 28th birthday on December 11, 2015, in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Gunmen from the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, stand guard during a parade marking the ruling Islamist terror movement's 28th birthday on December 11, 2015, in Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip. (Said Khatib/AFP)

If things weren’t bad enough for residents of the Gaza Strip, the ocean — the only place where they could escape the heat and their suffering — has been declared off-limits to bathers in much of the area. The decision was taken by the Gaza municipality, citing the severe pollution of the beaches. Gaza’s sewage-treatment plants have shut down due to the ongoing power shortage, and as a result, untreated sewage has been flowing into the sea.

“The only place we could go to have fun has been closed too,” said T., a Gaza City resident, in a telephone interview. “There are a few beaches in the northern Gaza Strip where swimming is still possible, but they’re far away. So where are we going to go? There’s no pay, no power, no beach. We’re swimming in shit,” he added, laughing bitterly.

Anyone in Israel inclined toward schadenfreude about the Gazans’ suffering might be advised to reconsider. The Mediterranean currents could easily carry Gaza’s sewage to the beaches of Ashkelon, Ashdod, and farther north.

T. said that the despair is growing worse each day. “We’re in the month of Ramadan. There were years when the streets were filled every night with people coming and going, just like in Ramallah.” This year, by contrast, although younger Gazans still crowd the cafes, “people have no money to shop,” said T. “There’s no violence and the situation is relatively calm, but I wouldn’t be surprised if one day you see people starting to march in desperation toward the Erez border crossing.”

Palestinian families gather at the beach, during power cuts, to break their fast in Gaza City on May 31, 2017, during the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)
Palestinian families gather at the beach, during power cuts, to break their fast in Gaza City on May 31, 2017, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Hamas has also been talking of a potential mass march toward the Israeli border fence. The terror group held a so-called day of rage on Friday, and said it would continue into this week and that as part of it, Gaza residents would march toward the fence. Hamas’s intention is to channel public anger toward Israel while sending the message to the Israelis that if the power shortage is not relieved soon, the situation could deteriorate into a full-scale conflict.

Palestinian children read copies of the Koran, Islam's holiest book, on the first day of fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at the al-Omari mosque in Gaza City, on May 27, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Mahmud Hams)
Palestinian children read copies of the Quran, Islam’s holiest book, on the first day of fasting in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, at the al-Omari mosque in Gaza City, on May 27, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / Mahmud Hams)

Still, the news out of Gaza is not all bleak.

First, Israel did not reduce the amount of electricity that it provides to the Strip on June 1, even though the Palestinian Authority asked Israel, which collects tax money on behalf of the PA and then transfers it on, to decrease the amount it deducts from that sum for paying Gaza’s overdue electric bill.

The average resident of the Gaza Strip receives approximately four to six hours of electricity each day. If Israel had reduced the amount of electricity that it provides, this would have gone down to two to four hours each day. Evidently due to pressure from National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Resources Minister Yuval Steinitz, defense establishment officials decided to stop the planned reduction and wait.

Second, Hamas is doing everything in its power to prevent another round of armed conflict with Israel from breaking out. If we look closely at its behavior since Operation Protective Edge ended in August 2014, Hamas — an organization sworn to the State of Israel’s destruction — is acting almost like Israel’s own Border Police. While the purpose of the positions it has established along Israel’s border may primarily be to keep a lookout on the enemy, they also prevent armed men who could perpetrate terror attacks against Israeli targets from getting near the fence.

Hamas has been working to prevent both terror attacks and rocket fire against Israel. Where it has not managed to prevent the latter, it has arrested and even tortured operatives of jihadist groups responsible for the fire from time to time. So-called “rebel” groups have been responsible for all the rocket-fire incidents that have taken place — 40 in all — since the end of the last war almost three years ago.

Hamas officials inspect the drivers who arrive at the Kerem Shalom border crossing from the Palestinian side to thwart any planned terror attacks there. They also speak with Palestinian fishermen before they go out to sea to make sure they do not leave the waters where fishing is permitted.

So much for the “good” news. Now for the rest.

Deif’s army

Even as Hamas tries to avoid a conflict now, it is preparing intensively for the next war.

And there are some who believe its position today is stronger than it was in the summer of 2014.

Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif
Hamas military wing commander Muhammad Deif

Hamas is built like an army in every way. It has at its disposal 27,000 armed men divided into six regional brigades, with 25 battalions and 106 companies.

Of this military array, 2,500 armed men are members of the Nuhba, Hamas’s elite unit. A third of these troops are intended to be sent to carry out attacks inside Israeli territory. These gunmen are supposed to strike from the sea (the naval commandos), from the air (using flying ATVs or motorized gliders, for example), and, of course, from the ground, mainly via cross-border tunnels, from which they would emerge to raid an Israeli residential community or army base in order to kidnap and kill.

The tunnels are the main focus of Hamas’s military efforts.

Hamas invests even more in “defensive” tunnels — those it uses inside the Gaza Strip — than in the attack tunnels that are designed to penetrate into Israeli territory. It has tunnels inside Gaza thought to be dozens of kilometers long: an actual city beneath the Strip that will enable the entire rocket operation, as well as Hamas’s command and control echelons, to continue to function even during severe aerial bombardment by Israel.

Masked Palestinian gunmen from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas, commemorate the 29th anniversary of their group, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Masked Palestinian gunmen from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a military wing of Hamas, commemorate the 29th anniversary of their group, in Gaza City, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2016. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

In charge of this entire effort is Mohammed Deif, the terror chief with nine lives. Born in the Khan Younis refugee camp 52 years ago, Deif has been a wanted man since the 1980s, when he was among those who set up Hamas’s military wing.

Deif has been wounded several in assassination attempts. One of his wives and two of his children were killed in an Israeli attempt on his life during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge.

Not only has he returned to his position despite his injuries, but Deif is also considered the military wing’s supreme commander and is responsible for building Hamas’s military strength and preparing it for war. While Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s overall Gaza chief, is considered a “defense minister” of sorts, Deif concentrates on the military sphere. He has set up a small general staff whose members include his deputy, Marwan Issa, military intelligence head Ayman Nofal, and several Hamas brigade commanders.

Hamas's new leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar (2nd R) and senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) sit next to the son of assassinated Hamas terrorist Mazen Faqha on March 27, 2017, in Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Hamas’s new leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar (2nd R) and senior political leader Ismail Haniyeh (L) sit next to the son of assassinated Hamas terrorist Mazen Faqha on March 27, 2017, in Gaza City. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Deif and his “supervising minister” Sinwar — both of whom are considered radical even by Hamas standards — are cautious and in no hurry to start a war with Israel. This, despite the worsening situation in the Gaza Strip, the ongoing closure of the Rafiah border crossing, and the PA’s threats to force tens of thousands of officials into retirement and cut the salaries of the ones staying on.

As far as the old-new Hamas headed by Ismail Haniyeh, Sinwar, and Deif is concerned, the main goal, at least for now, is not another war with Israel, but rather the survival of Hamas’s regime in Gaza and a future takeover of Palestinian power centers — the West Bank and the PLO — in their entirety.

Adapting

One reason Hamas is not eager for another conflict just yet is that Gaza’s population has had its fill of war and catastrophe. The inhabitants of the Strip have adapted to the new situation of prolonged power outages, salary cutbacks, and so on, and, as always, have learned to survive.

For example, after the iftar and the tarawih — the evening break-fast meal and the prayer service afterward — the young people hurry off to Gaza’s famous cafés, such as Gahwetna, on the Sheikh Ajlin neighborhood’s polluted beach, and Habiba. The nargila is the item most in demand there, along with coffee, tea, and fruit juice. These establishments are for the young men — the shabab — only. Other places — such as the Al-Deira Café (on the Rimal beach), the adjacent Roots, and Level Up, on the eleventh floor of a building in the Rimal section — have a mixed clientele.

The threats by the PA in Ramallah to decrease fund transfers to Gaza continue to loom. T., for one, is sharply critical. “I don’t know what Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is trying to accomplish with the cutbacks and reducing the payments for electricity. He wants to punish Hamas, but he’s actually punishing two million Gazans.”

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