Sending naval commandos to Iran via Sinai, Hamas pushed Egypt too far

Furious at Gaza’s Islamist rulers, Egypt’s intelligence agents swooped on Wednesday, and prompted a major dispute

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.

Hamas naval commandos, seen in a still image from a propaganda video released by the terror group during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014. (Screen capture)
Hamas naval commandos, seen in a still image from a propaganda video released by the terror group during Israel's Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014. (Screen capture)

Four members of Hamas’s military wing were kidnapped by Egyptian intelligence this week in what seems to be developing into one of the greatest disputes between Hamas and Egypt.

Initially, reports surfaced that the Hamas men were kidnapped in the Sinai Peninsula by Islamic State militants, but on Thursday the Times of Israel learned the whole story.

The four were members of the elite “naval commando” of Hamas, and they exploited Egypt’s opening of the Rafah crossing — green-lighted by Cairo for humanitarian reasons — in order to leave the Gaza Strip and go train abroad.

Egypt learned of this plan ahead of time (and it would be interesting to know where from), and decided to arrest the quartet.

The arrests are creating furor in the Gaza Strip. Family members of the Islamist marine wannabes are protesting and calling for their release, while Hamas websites are pointing the finger at Egypt, holding Cairo responsible for their well-being.

The frogmen arrived at the Rafah crossing on Wednesday and entered Egypt. They boarded a bus taking passengers to Cairo airport. Apparently, they were heading for Iran, where they were slated to continue a training course already begun some time ago.

Iran is not only training the Hamas fighters but also providing them with state-of-the-art military diving gear, including closed breathing systems and scooters, submersible vehicles with which terrorists can get, underwater, all the way to Ashkelon or even Ashdod.

According to reports on Hamas-affiliated websites, there were 50 passengers on the bus. When it had traveled about a kilometer from the crossing, two cars with plain-clothed armed men inside started chasing it. They stopped the bus, got on, and began examining the ID cards of all those on board.

When they saw the names of Abd el-Da’im el-Basset, Said Abdallah Abu Jabin, Yasser Fathi Zanon and Hussein Hamis el-Dabda, they whisked them away to an unknown location.

The incident immediately made headlines, but the Egyptians claimed that the Sinai terror affiliate of Islamic State, Walayat Sinai (or Sinai Province), was to blame for the kidnapping.

Hamas did not buy the story. Why would IS kidnap four fighters from the military wing when they get significant assistance from Hamas in smuggling weapons and fighters from and to Gaza?

And indeed, as testimony started flowing from the bus to Hamas bureaus in Gaza, a very different picture started taking shape. On Thursday, when the Times of Israel identified the kidnappers as Egyptian intelligence personnel, the story made ripples in Palestinian media and was widely quoted.

At the same time, an Egyptian statement announced the closure of the Rafah crossing as well as a ban by Cairo on a Hamas delegation that was preparing to leave the Gaza Strip for talks on a long-term ceasefire with Israel.

The Egyptians are telling Hamas that the game is up. “We will not allow any damage to Egyptian sovereignty,” this reporter was told more than once in recent months by Egyptian officials.

Cairo knows that the military wing of Hamas is playing with fire in Egypt’s own backyard, the Sinai. It seems that this time, Hamas crossed an Egyptian red line.

Former Quartet envoy to the Middle East Tony Blair is trying to conjure up some kind of Hamas-Israel ceasefire agreement. With all due respect to the former British prime minister, as long as Cairo does not want it, no such agreement will be signed.

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