As the Egyptian army continues to eliminate smuggling into Gaza, a single checkpoint in Israel has become a bottleneck for goods flowing to Hamas’s military industry, with Israel’s special intelligence team successfully foiling 670 ‘creative’ smuggling attempts so far this year.
By Alex Fishman
Israel’s experienced intelligence officers treat this group as an enemy that must not be underestimated. It is a serious close-knit group of 40-something year olds who have been together for over 20 years. They all have experience with underground and military activities, they’ve all been wanted by Israel since the mid-90s, and they have all survived assassination attempts. They share a common language, which is a significant advantage in the secret war they are waging. The most senior among them, Mohammed Deif, has been wanted by Israel since 1992.
They don’t care about the misgivings the political ranks of Hamas have had since Operation Protective Edge. While Khaled Mashal confronts the political leadership in Gaza on questions like whether to join forces with the Palestinian Authority; whether the formation of an Islamic state in the Gaza Strip is the end of the process or just a stop on the way to a bigger goal; and whether to join forces with the Shi’ite, meaning Iran, and give up on Saudi support – the heads of Hamas’ military wing are only focusing on one clear objective: Preparing for the next war against Israel. To them, anyone who can help them reach that objective is an ally. They have no problem with receiving money from Iran while at the same time having ties with ISIS in the Sinai.
With the exception of Mohammed Deif, the names of the members of these groups are known mostly just to intelligence officials: Muhammad Sinwar, Ahmed Ghandour, Rawahi Mushta, Ayman Noufal, Raed Saad and Marwan Issa. They all made their way up the ranks of Hamas’ military wing until they reached the top. Their strategy is very transparent. The main logical lesson they learned from Operation Protective Edge is that without the element of surprise, they won’t be able to claim any achievements. And if there’s something they blame Hamas’ political ranks of – and that is why they won’t listen to them in the next round of fighting – is the fact they were prevented of making that surprise move inside Israel, that should have wreaked destruction and death and left the Israeli public in shock.
Since Operation Protective Edge, Hamas has been continuing the training its Special Forces and naval commandos. In light of Hamas’ operations during Protective Edge, it is safe to assume it will once again try to launch a simultaneous attack on several targets inside Israel, similar to their failed attempts during the 2014 war. At the same time, Hamas is also working on building up its stockpiles to allow for continued rocket fire over a period of many weeks.
In light of these preparations, there two sides are fighting a daily war of the minds. As far as Israel is concerned, this is a cruel and sophisticated game of chess meant to prevent Hamas from being able to infiltrate its territory through dozens of spots. This means sabotaging Hamas’ tunnel-digging abilities, and stopping rocket production as much as possible. Every day on which Hamas can’t dig due to the lack of equipment and materials, is seen as net profit.
On the Palestinian side of this game of chess, merchants and other professionals in the fields of economy and finance are working alongside the heads of Hamas’ military wing. This entire mechanism is dedicated to smuggling materials for the local military industry into the Gaza Strip. Most of the weapons Hamas uses are being manufactured inside the Strip: Starting with rockets and including anti-tank RPG 29 launchers. Hamas’ military industry demands raw materials, and the smuggling mechanism is supposed to find the solutions. It is also responsible for the importing of tools and materials to construct the attack tunnels.
The Egyptians bombed most of the smuggling tunnels from the Sinai and are flooding others with water. There are only a few dozen left that the Egyptians have yet to reach. From the moment Egypt started destroying the tunnels, Israel has turned into the elixir of life for Hamas’ military wing. In other words: Merchandise and raw materials coming from the Ashdod port, the West Bank, and Israel itself, are all serving the military industry in the Gaza Strip. And this entire effort flows into a very narrow bottleneck: The Kerem Shalom border crossing. The sea does not, at the moment, constitute a worthwhile alternative to smuggling through the Sinai, because of Israel and Egypt’s military activities there. Attempts to get equipment into the Strip through the sea are met with fire and the confiscation of fishing vessels.
Facing this smuggling mechanism is a special intelligence team led by the Shin Bet, which also includes representatives from the Israel Airports Authority, the Tax Authority, the Israel Police, COGAT and the Counter-Terrorism Bureau. The special intelligence team gathers the information coming from all of these authorities and agencies – with an emphasis on intelligence provided by the Shin Bet on the military and economic activity in Gaza – and thwarts the smuggling attempts with the help of the police or the Airports Authority.
And so, while the wave of terror attacks in the West Bank is making headlines, at the southern corner of the Gaza Strip, on roads leading to the Kerem Shalom border crossing, a Sisyphean war is being waged in an effort to prevent the next round of fighting or at the very least delay it.
The special intelligence team has been instructed to stop Hamas from recovering the capabilities it had on the eve of Operation Protective Edge. The results of the next round of fighting are being determined right now at the Kerem Shalom crossing. This is a war of intelligence for all intents and purposes, which includes intelligence gathering, investigative tricks, deception, disinformation, concealment and betrayal. Since the special team began its work at the end of last year, the Shin Bet has questioned 50 suspects. Thirty-five of them – Israeli Jews and Arabs, as well as Palestinians from the West Bank – have been arrested by the Shin Bet.
In the last two months, 25 serious indictments have been filed on charges of attempted smuggling, the sale of merchandise to terror groups in Gaza, and money laundering. One case that received attention was that of Michael Peretz from Mivtahim. He was indicted in September for allegedly providing Hamas with equipment to dig tunnels and manufacture rockets. His trial has just begun. And there are several dozen other cases in the pipeline that deal with smuggling to Gaza. At least one Israeli company that deals with metals has been shut down after committing security and economic offenses.
Hamas’ woes, and its desire to continue operating its rocket production lines and revive its attack tunnels, has led its smuggling mechanism to become particularly creative, which often amazes the Israelis. In 2014, even before the special intelligence team was formed, security at Kerem Shalom discovered a small tractor, dismantled, hidden inside a truck transporting generators into the Strip. The tractor was meant to be used in the digging of the tunnels. The thing that drew their attention was that one of the generators had an unusually large gas tank that could hold 3,000 liters of gas. When they opened the generator, they found the parts of the dismantled tractor inside. All they had left to do was find the tractor’s engine, which they did – disguised as another generator.
At the time, such an incident would have ended, at best, with the confiscation of the equipment and with sanctions being put on driver barring him from transporting goods into the Strip. And even that would not have lasted long, because shortly after sanctioning the driver, a message would come from the attorney general saying this was a violation of the driver’s freedom of occupation.
Since the special intelligence team was formed, any smuggling attempt turns into an investigation led by the Shin Bet, which is working to break the smuggling network by reaching both the clients and the providers. So far, 30 merchants from the Gaza Strip have lost their entry permits into Israel after they were found to be working for Hamas. But that isn’t the end of the matter, as some of the merchants or the companies behind them change their names. Hamas also establishes straw companies and often changes their names.
In one instance, a thinner was ordered from Hebron, and when it passed through Kerem Shalom it was discovered to be liquid used in the production of rocket fuel. The Shin Bet and the Civil Administration found the merchants in Hebron who sent the hidden merchandise and shut down their business. But shortly after that, it was reopened under a different name in the Samaria area.
Two weeks ago, a truck carrying what was defined as paint powder got to the Kerem Shalom crossng. The Israeli merchant and the driver had no idea that someone along the way fooled them and switched the powder with iron oxide, which is used for rocket propulsion. So far, those who were fooled in this manner have not been held responsible and were not punished. But in several weeks, that too will change and they will be viewed as responsible for the merchandise they were transporting into the Strip, even if they had no idea contraband was concealed in it. These merchants and drivers will face fines of up to NIS 1 million and the police and the Shin Bet might become involved.
With ploys thou shall dig thy tunnels
Some ten tons of iron oxide, enough to manufacture some 20,000 rockets, have been seized at the Kerem Shalom crossing so far, thanks to intelligence or security checks. Most of the iron oxide came from the Sinai through the Nitzana border crossing and from there made its way to Kerem Shalom. In addition, 6.3 tons of aluminum oxide, enough to make 620 rockets, and four tons of graphite, used to make 1,300 rockets, were also seized at the Kerem Shalom crossing. There is no doubt that Hamas’ rocket production line, if it hasn’t been completely stopped, has at the very least been slowed down due to the lack of these materials. Furthermore, losing these materials forces Hamas to use alternative materials to manufacture their rockets – meaning materials of lower quality.
All of the merchandise confiscated on its way to Gaza is being housed in a giant storehouse in the Negev. Among the items seized are advanced cameras, scuba diving equipment, generators, solar panels, communication devices, fiber optics, radios, computers, a lot of welding equipment and water pumps purchased for the tunnels. Some of the items were sold, some destroyed.
According to the Airport Authority’s records, in the year and a half prior to Operation Protective Edge, when Egypt served as the main supply line for the Gaza Strip, there were 250 thwarted smuggling attempts. In 2015, that number rose to 670 smuggling attempts that had been foiled. Ninety-three of them were big smuggling attempts that posed a clear security threat, following which an investigation was launched and arrests were made.
The high number of smuggling attempts is a result of what’s happening in Egypt. In August and September, Cairo lowered the pressure on the tunnels and the number of large-scale smuggling attempts being stopped in Israel went down to zero. In October, when the Egyptians started flooding the tunnels, the number jumped to seven thwarted attempts that posed clear security threats.
Over the past two months, as a result of the pressure Israel has been putting on smuggling attempts, Hamas has been forced to focus on only the most vital materials needed to manufacture rockets and dig tunnels, as well as equipment it needs for its special forces. This led, in October, to the capture of military boots, bullet-proof vests, and epoxy glue used for rocket making.
Several months ago, Israel confiscated multicopter drones meant to take surveillance photos in Israel, which were hidden inside air conditioners. In another attempt, a motorcycle was found hidden inside a refrigerator. One of the more sophisticated smuggling attempts was of electrodes used for welding in the tunnels. The electrodes were hidden inside marble, and were only discovered thanks to a particularly vigilant employee who something was unusual about that marble.
The Kerem Shalom border crossing is the final stop in which Israel can stop the smuggling into the Gaza Strip. And, indeed, since the beginning of the year, the crossing’s budget has been doubled, the team of employees checking the goods coming into the Strip has increased by 40 percent, and advanced electronic equipment was brought in to identify different types of materials. Including, among other things, a new X ray machine that can scan three trucks at the same time. Every truck must unload its merchandise and is allowed through only after a careful examination of every item. And yet, the basic assumption is that Hamas does have some successes.
Israel has no doubt that the terror organization’s efforts to smuggle raw materials through Kerem Shalom will increase when the Egyptians succeed in flooding the remaining active tunnels on the Sinai border. Hamas has no other choice, if it wants to be able to withstand weeks of fighting. The more successful Israel is in stopping these attempts, the more Hamas will be looking for alternatives.
This fight against Hamas has two objective limitations. Following Operation Protective Edge, Israel committed to help reconstruct the Gaza Strip, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of trucks allowed into the Strip. If before the operation 300 trucks were allowed into the Strip every day, now 850 trucks are let in daily. Over the past year, 150,000 trucks went through Kerem Shalom, compared to 70,000 in 2014. This, in itself, is quite a difficult security challenge.
The second limitation is in the fact the lion’s share of the contraband stopped at the crossing has dual use: Both civilian and military. So Hamas is looking for ploys and tricks. When Israel limited the amount of cement allowed in, which is being used for the construction of tunnels, Hamas started importing wood as an alternative. When Israel figured out what the wood was being used for, Hamas started importing boards of hard plastic for the same purpose. Israel figured that out too, and is waiting to see what Hamas will come up with next. This is where intelligence comes into play: Israel must figure out where and which materials Hamas is missing for its rockets production line and its tunnels. Based on that, the employees at the border crossing are told what to expect, which materials could pop up in the next smuggling trick.
In order to still allow for the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, every order of construction materials is being examined by a team of engineers. They examine whether the amounts ordered make sense. Theoretically, supervisors from international organizations are supposed to ensure the construction materials are going to the right places. But intelligence agencies are also monitoring the civil projects in order to stop a significant spillover of materials to Hamas.
In one instance, Hamas was able to smuggle fabrics used to make military uniforms from Israel to Gaza. These fabrics were later smuggled to ISIS in the Sinai. So it’s safe to assume that if fabrics were smuggled in that manner, other materials were too.
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