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Analysis

Gazans nabbed in Sinai were Hamas naval commandos en route to training

Islamic terror group says Egyptian intelligence intercepted the four, who may have been heading to Iran

Avi Issacharoff

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.

The waters off the coast of Gaza. (photo credit: CC-BY-SA ProIsraeli, Flickr)
The waters off the coast of Gaza. (photo credit: CC-BY-SA ProIsraeli, Flickr)

Four Gazans abducted on a bus traveling from Rafah to Cairo airport on Wednesday night were senior Hamas naval commandos who were heading overseas — apparently to Iran — for training, The Times of Israel has learned.

In Gaza, it is believed that the four were intercepted by Egyptian intelligence operatives, and the incident has raised tensions between Hamas and Egypt to new heights.

The four crossed into Egypt via Rafah, where the border was opened in recent days for humanitarian purposes. The Egyptian authorities apparently learned ahead of time that they were making the journey. The crossing has now been closed.

The four were named as Abed Al-Daim Al-Bassat, Said Abdullah Abu Jbin, Yasser Fathi Zanun and Hussein Hamis al-Thbada.

Al-Jazeera quoted a Hamas source on Thursday asserting that Egyptian intelligence was responsible for the abduction.

Various media reports have previously stated that Hamas naval commandos have received sophisticated equipment and undergone intensive training in Iran. The commandos are also reported to have acquired highly mobile underwater scooters that can travel relatively long distances, potentially enabling access to targets deep inside Israel.

Egypt has been closely monitoring the activities of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, and especially in the area bordering the Sinai, in light of information that the Hamas fighters have been working together with Islamic State-linked activists in the peninsula. Egypt is said to have intelligence indicating that Hamas fighters gather information on Egyptian Army movements in the area, and are working with IS to smuggle weaponry in and out of Gaza.

Footage from a Hamas drone that fell inside Israel is also said to indicate that Hamas has been filming along the Gaza-Egypt border.

A Gaza interior ministry spokesman said in a statement Thursday that the four Gazans were kidnapped at gunpoint in the troubled northern Sinai region. He said that his ministry had contacted its Egyptian counterpart “to establish the circumstances of what happened and demand that the Egyptians work to protect the victims and release them.”

Witnesses told The Associated Press that several masked militants opened fire in the air and stopped the bus half an hour after it rolled into the restive peninsula. They grabbed four youths and fled the scene.

Officials said that some of the passengers who arrived safely described the gunmen as wearing “Pakistani-type” clothes and holding laptop computers on which they checked passengers’ names before separating the four from the group and taking them away.

North Sinai, where Egyptian security forces are fighting an Islamist insurgency, is a bastion of the Egyptian affiliate of the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group, which is spearheading an insurgency that has swelled since the army’s ouster of president Muhammed Morsi in July 2013.

Formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the key jihadist group in the region changed its name to “Sinai Province” when it pledged allegiance to IS last November.

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