Latest tunnel strike puts Hamas leaders in a tough spot with Cairo

Group will have hard time explaining how it allowed — or worse, ordered — the construction of a passage giving Gaza terrorists access to Sinai

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.

Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza city on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)
Yahya Sinwar (R) the new leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and senior Hamas official Ismail Haniyeh attend the funeral of Hamas official Mazen Faqha in Gaza city on March 25, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

Hamas leaders find themselves in a worrisome situation. Another of their tunnels penetrating into Israeli territory has been exposed and destroyed. In total, two of their tunnels have been destroyed in about two and a half months (another one, possibly two, belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad has also been demolished), and it seems like Hamas is quickly losing its most significant strategic weapon ahead of the next possible military confrontation with Israel.

Yes, the terror group still has its rockets — and due to the success of the Iron Dome defense system, it has focused on developing short-range rockets with large warheads and mortars. But still, the attack tunnels were considered the crowning glory of Hamas’s military capabilities. Now, it’s becoming clear, that weapon is about to lose its relevance.

This could push Hamas to initiate an offensive in the near future in an attempt to utilize its remaining tunnels reaching into Israeli territory.

But the probability of such a scenario is not high. Had Hamas leaders in Gaza, headed by Yahya Sinwar, wanted to do so, they would have acted a long time ago. It is clear that the group’s leaders in the Strip are not interested right now in an outbreak of violence. That could have been deduced from Hamas’s lack of reaction after the March assassination of Mazen Fuqha, its Gaza operative who directed terror networks in the West Bank, and of course more recently after the various tunnels were demolished.

Hamas’s wish to avert a military confrontation at this time can also be inferred from its actions to prevent escalation with Israel, like arresting operatives belonging to “rogue” organizations and the remarkable deployment of “restraint forces” whose job is to foil attacks on Israeli territory.

Indeed, rockets are still lobbed from time to time at Israeli towns, but it is now clear that those attacks aren’t being carried out with Hamas’s blessing. The organization is also continuously trying to lower the tensions with Egypt, including cutting its various ties with Sinai Province — the Islamic State’s branch in the peninsula — which led to the latter declaring Hamas a “heretic” group that needs to be fought.

In this context, the route of the tunnel destroyed Saturday is a source of great embarrassment to the Hamas leadership as it seeks to strengthen its ties with Cairo. Less than a week has passed since senior Egyptian intelligence officials toured the border between Sinai and Gaza with Hamas officials, to closely monitor Hamas’s actions to prevent smuggling into and out of Gaza, and also to prevent terror operatives from crossing from the Strip into Sinai.

Relations between Cairo and the organization’s elite in Gaza have greatly improved in recent months, with leaders Sinwar and Ismail Haniyeh perceived in Egypt as important partners in the significant moves toward inter-Palestinian reconciliation. And yet, it now emerges that under the nose of the Egyptian security system, Hamas has not only allowed the construction of a tunnel that can be used for the smuggling of good and fighters; it has apparently constructed it itself.

One can only imagine the conversation that Hamas leaders will have with Egyptian intelligence officials demanding explanations on the nature of the tunnel, and what they knew and didn’t know about it.

An attack tunnel that was bombed by Israeli jets on January 13, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The tunnel passed directly under the triple border between Gaza, Egypt and Israel, where the Kerem Shalom border crossing operates. It probably also reached places where it could have been used for attacks on Israeli soil and for entry into Egypt.

This isn’t the first and won’t be the last time Hamas is making use of the crossing’s space. The fact that it is the main windpipe for Gaza’s economy doesn’t seem to have had an impact on the group’s military decision-making.

Time after time, we’ve learned how much the suffering of Gaza’s residents could have been mitigated, and how much could have been invested in improving their well-being, if funds were not used for tunnels and rockets. But Hamas, as usual, doesn’t care. At the same time, the terror group is making huge efforts to shift the blame for the humanitarian situation in Gaza onto Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmad, center right, and Hamas’ representative, Saleh al-Arouri, center left, sign a reconciliation deal during a short ceremony at the Egyptian intelligence complex in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. Thursday’s signing came after two days of negotiations in the Egyptian capital on the governing of the Gaza Strip as part of the most serious effort to date to end the 10 year rift between the rival Palestinian groups. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

The blows to Hamas’s strategic weapon — the tunnels — could cause the group to focus its efforts on other weapons: drones (as in the incident of the swarm of drones that attacked the Russian base in Syria), commando forces, multicopter drones and more. It isn’t at all easy to change a well-established modus operandi worked on for years with great financial expenditure and physical exertion — but Hamas may do just that in the face of recent Israeli success.

Of course, all of the above cannot be separated from the broader Palestinian arena. Sinwar and Haniyeh took a large gamble when they chose reconciliation with the PA and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO central council will meet Sunday in Ramallah to adopt “dramatic decisions” following the US’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Delegations from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were invited to the event but chose not to attend, probably due to the failure of the reconciliation efforts. It seems, therefore, that Hamas isn’t achieving significant success on Palestinian unity, either.

Hamas can only receive some encouragement from the fact that its rivals in Fatah and the PLO aren’t going anywhere — and are similarly failing to register any achievements. PA President Mahmoud Abbas tried to make the PLO meeting look dramatic, but unfortunately for him, nobody is taking it seriously: neither the Palestinian public nor Hamas, and especially not the international community.

The PLO and the PA, like Hamas, are stuck in a rut, and the people’s frustration with its leaders is only growing. But as the saying goes, maybe a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved for Hamas and its leaders.

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