Hamas masses troops on Israeli border, trains for new round of fighting
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Analysis

Hamas masses troops on Israeli border, trains for new round of fighting

Still, wrapped up in tension between its military and political wings, Gaza’s ruling Islamist group isn’t keen on engaging Israel anytime soon

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.

Gunmen from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, patrol an area near the Israeli border with Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 3, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Gunmen from the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas' armed wing, patrol an area near the Israeli border with Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on June 3, 2015 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Something relatively new is happening on the Gaza-Israel border, and it’s visible even to the naked eye: More and more armed Hamas troops are on the move just a short distance from the border fence, perhaps in an effort to accustom Israelis to their presence there.

It is hard to know why they are there. Some of the Hamas troops are carrying out ongoing security tasks, while others are training in camps very close to the border, such as the one established on the ruins of Dugit, a Jewish settlement evacuated in 2005.

One can’t rule out the possibility that Hamas’s purpose in getting troops on the Israeli side used to seeing armed Hamas men just 300 meters away from the border is to prepare for a surprise raid inside Israeli territory in case of war or escalation. Or perhaps the goal, particularly regarding the training that is going on inside the Hamas camps, is to create deterrence with Israel.

Whatever the purpose may be, it is clear that Hamas has been training its troops recently for more than launching rockets or carrying out commando attacks from the sea, as they did during last summer’s war. Hamas’s military wing has been conducting infantry and urban warfare exercises at the levels of platoon, company and even division. In other words, it is possible that together with its operating methods during the war — commando raids from tunnels, sea and air — Hamas will attempt in the next war to raid an Israeli community or army base, killing as many civilians or soldiers as possible.

The training in urban warfare that its troops are undergoing — throwing grenades into buildings, then shooting — is similar to the exercises of Israel’s own infantry troops. We can only guess Hamas’s intentions regarding these urban warfare drills. Its goal may be no more than to deter Israel from fighting in Gaza, since it is well aware that a raid by one of its companies on an Israeli community could end in dozens of dead on the Palestinian side.

A Palestinian man looks at what used to be a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel, in the area of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 5, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian man looks at what used to be a tunnel leading from the Gaza Strip into Israel, in the area of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on August 5, 2014 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Palestinians did not come up with this relatively new model. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has spoken quite a few times over the past two years about “conquering the Galilee” should there be another war with Israel. He was not referring to an actual takeover of parts of Israel; he was talking about attacking a community near the border and killing as many people, civilians or soldiers, as possible.

Such an attack would have a devastating effect on Israel’s morale. That may be the reason why Hamas has begun efforts to train its troops for such action, with an eye toward taking the war into Israeli territory: to go on the offensive rather than the defensive. It made similar efforts during last summer’s war, attempting a raid from the sea and planning a large-scale terror attack using the tunnels it had dug near Kibbutz Kerem Shalom. Hamas may go a step further in the next war, and as part of starting that war may try to take Israel by surprise by having dozens of its troops storm the border fence and kidnap one or more Israeli soldiers.

Is this scenario an imaginary one? Perhaps. But it is worth noting that during one training exercise, more than a hundred of Hamas’s troops were seen practicing a forward charge.

At the same time, Hamas has been working diligently on other methods for a future war: commando raids, massive production of short-range mortar shells (including ones with larger warheads) and, of course, its tunnels project. While the purpose of all these activities is to deter Israel, another goal may be to score a significant, landmark success for Hamas in the next conflict with the Israeli army after what Gaza residents see as a defeat in last summer’s war.

This may help us understand why Hamas’s leaders do not want escalation even as they train, build up and equip their troops. They are well aware of the price. Not even military wing commanders Mohammed Deif, Marwan Issa, longtime senior official Yahya Sinwar and his brother Muhammad are pressing for action now. Despite the ever-widening gaps and lack of trust between them and the political leadership, mainly the one located abroad and headed by Khaled Mashaal, they too realize that a new round of violence with Israel at this stage will only detract further from support for Hamas and cause more harm to its military infrastructure in Gaza.

Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal arrives for a meeting with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki at the Carthage presidential palace on the outskirts of Tunis on September 12, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ SALAH HABIBI)
Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal arrives for a meeting with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki at the Carthage presidential palace on the outskirts of Tunis on September 12, 2014. (Photo credit: AFP/ SALAH HABIBI)

The Sinwar brothers appear to be a rising force in Hamas’s military wing. Yahya, the elder brother, was released from prison in Israel in the prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit in October 2011. He is considered a founder of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza and was there in the group’s early days, together with figures such as Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Distanced by his long prison term from positions of power, he joined the leadership of the political and military wings on his return. His relationship with his brother Muhammad, who is considered a prominent brigade commander in the military wing, creates an important channel connecting the political and military departments of Hamas and strengthening Yahya’s position.

Muhammad is also not considered an enthusiastic supporter of Mashaal, who drew a great deal of criticism, mainly in the Gaza Strip, for the way he ran last summer’s war (from five-star hotels in Qatar) and is now getting flak for his problematic relationship with Iran. It is a definite possibility that Sinwar will succeed Mashaal as leader of the political wing in the next election; indeed, Mashaal barely managed to hold on to his position in the last vote.

This is no easy time for Hamas. The bad economic situation in the Gaza Strip, the decline in its popularity, the enormous damage that it suffered in the last war and its isolation in the Arab arena — all hobble its functioning in Gaza. Hamas’s senior figures are not looking for escalation. But it is still worth noting that Hamas wishes to avoid being seen as having surrendered to “the Jews.” After Israel attacked Hamas positions roughly two weeks ago in retaliation for rocket fire, Hamas warned that if Israel bombarded another of its compounds, it would fire rockets into Israeli territory. Last week, we saw how the army responded to rocket fire at Israel: by bombarding an open area. Of course, there were no casualties.

Egypt

Meanwhile, Cairo has finally decided to appoint an ambassador to Israel. At the same time, the Rafah border crossing into Gaza has been opened in both directions for more than a week — which has hardly ever happened since the revolution in Egypt in 2011. Quite a bit of commentary has been written and said in the Israeli media in an effort to explain these measures. It seems that Abdel Fattah al-Sissi’s Egypt has been trying to do several things at the same time.

The first was to preserve the state of calm. In light of the bad economic situation in Gaza, Cairo wished to make sure that calm would be maintained, and opening the Rafah border crossing was a means to that end. It was also a gesture to Hamas. Egyptian officials realized that Hamas had finally started — barely — to act against the smuggling of arms and armed men from Gaza to Sinai, so they decided to “leave a door open” for Hamas.

The fight against the terrorists in Sinai also resulted in relative calm, and the Egyptian army racked up more than a few achievements. Just recently, Egyptian troops cleansed the road between Sheikh Zaweed and El Arish of terrorists and set up five new outposts on it. But no decision has been made yet on changing its policy toward Hamas. Cairo still demands that only Palestinian Authority officials be stationed at the Rafah border crossing to ensure that it is opened with regularity. (One of the ideas raised by UN delegates and the international quartet recently about opening the border crossings to and from Gaza is to have PA security forces present on the Egyptian side. The Egyptians responded to the proposal with ridicule.)

Second, Cairo officials believe that the coming weeks will be critical for diplomacy between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. In light of the Palestinians’ plan to involve the International Criminal Court in The Hague and other international organizations, the Egyptians wanted to appoint an experienced ambassador to Israel who might be able to mediate between both sides and calm things down once again. In many ways, Cairo wants to regain its former status as mediator, mainly within the framework of the peace talks.

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