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.
Members of the al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, display Qassam rockets during an anti-Israel military parade marking the second anniversary of the killing of Hamas's military commanders Mohammed Abu Shamala and Raed al-Attar on August 21, 2016, in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. (AFP/Said Khatib)
As the residents of the Gaza Strip endure daily hardships due to the dire economic situation in the enclave, their Hamas leaders spend over $100 million a year on the group’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, according to estimates by both Israeli and Palestinian sources. Spending on digging tunnels accounts for some $40 million of that annual sum.
By way of comparison, the budget of the last Hamas government, which dissolved in April 2014, was $530 million. In other words, some 20 percent of the budget was funneled toward arming the group with advanced weapons, digging tunnels, training, and salaries for Hamas fighters.
Some 1,500 Hamas members from various brigades are currently employed in tunnel digging. The average salary for an excavator is $250-$400 a month — relatively high for the Strip, where unemployment is rampant. The diggers also receive bonuses and incentives for meeting deadlines set by the Hamas military leadership. Veteran diggers receive higher salaries than others.
The military wing of Hamas continues to be helmed by the Muhammed Deif, who serves as a chief of staff, while Yahya Sinwar serves as a defense minister and liaison with the political wing. Under them, Marwan Issa, Deif’s aide de camp, deals with building up the group’s military capabilities. Reporting to Issa are various commanders of different brigades and areas, such as defense industries and others.
Entrance to a Hamas terror tunnel discovered by the IDF running under the Gaza border into Israel on May 5, 2016. (IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)
The military wing has continued to develop its capabilities over the past two years in anticipation of another possible war with Israel. Among other things, Hamas has been investing in weapons that could bypass the Iron Dome anti-missile system and in more precise rockets than those it possessed in the summer of 2014, when it fought a 50-day war with Israel.
As part of this effort, Hamas, an Islamist terror group avowedly committed to destroying Israel, has allocated tremendous resources to smuggling materials into the Strip that can be used for building weapons, mostly from Israel, but also by sea or through smuggling tunnels from the Sinai Peninsula.
Last week, the Egyptian military exposed one such 2.5-kilometer-long tunnel. At the Gaza border with Egypt, Hamas uses a large workforce along with bulldozers and tractors to dig tunnels, with work occasionally taking place right under the noses of Egyptian soldiers.
In the smuggling efforts from Sinai to Gaza, senior officials from the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State also play a role, working closely with Hamas military leaders in the southern Strip. The man in charge of coordination between IS and Hamas is Abd al-Rahman Barhame, who is in Gaza as a guest of Hamas’s military wing.
Other Islamic State officials responsible for coordination with Hamas also reside in the coastal enclave, preserving the ties between the two terror groups despite Egypt’s objections, largely without informing the Hamas political leadership of these activities.