Terrorists who fought U.S. in Iraq make way to Gaza
Israeli officials: Hamas is not interested in letting destabilizing elements enter the Strip.
Dozens of Islamic terrorists have entered the Gaza Strip over the past year and are operating there in the framework of extremist organizations identified with the "Worldwide Jihad." The terrorists are Sunni Muslims, many of whom have taken part in the fighting against American forces in Iraq. So far, as much as is known, these terrorists have been involved in a relatively small number of attacks.
Various groups inspired by Al-Qaida and other similar organizations are responsible for the relatively recent attempts to launch terror attacks from Gaza. Two months ago the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service prevented an attempted attack which involved sending booby-trapped horses to the Erez crossing point. An extremist splinter group was behind the failed terror attack, but despite the reports in the Palestinian press, Israel did not identify the involvement of any foreign terrorists in the attack.
The flow of foreign terrorists to Gaza will gradually increase, defense officials forecast, as the friction between the extremist Sunni groups and U.S. forces in Iraq diminishes in advance of the expected American withdrawal. Israeli officials are of the opinion that Hamas is not particularly interested in having these foreigners enter the Strip since they do not act under Hamas instructions and are identified with even more extremist and uncompromising ideologies than Hamas itself.
Hamas has a relatively high level of control over the actions of established groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But Hamas is finding it difficult to rein in the smaller and newer groups, which are identified with Al-Qaida and Worldwide Jihad, and are made up primarily of former Hamas activists.
The months of quiet since the IDF's Operation Cast Lead in Gaza this past winter have increased the number of those deserting Hamas in favor of Worldwide Jihad, as front-line Hamas military activists have increased their criticism of what they view as the impotence of the organization's leadership against Israel.
Senior Israeli defense officials confirmed that Hamas in Gaza is not presently involved in attacks against Israel. The organization is not initiating terror attacks and in many cases is even preventing such attempts by the smaller organizations. A senior IDF officer claimed Hamas has moved from just holding back the groups to actually preventing attacks. He said this was due to Hamas' "temporary interest in quiet and not from any sudden love for Israel, but those are the facts for now."
Hamas is interested in a long time-out, say defense officials, in order to rebuild its military capabilities and strengthen its control of Gaza. Even when the IDF sends small forces inside the Strip - usually to defuse bombs or clear areas it suspects are booby-trapped - Hamas prefers to show self-restraint, even though it feels it has a legitimate cause for a military response against Israel.
At the same time, Hamas is continuing its intensive efforts to smuggle arms into Gaza. The Islamic Jihad is also organizing its own arms smuggling, but on a much smaller basis. Since January, the smuggling has faced more and more difficulties. Israel attributes much of this to increasing Egyptian motivation to stop the smuggling, but also to preventative steps taken by other countries. Hamas' main efforts are focused on smuggling in munitions that will give it a concrete advantage in a conflict with Israel: medium-range rockets, anti-aircraft missiles and advanced anti-tank missiles.
Israeli intelligence has no exact information on the missiles that have already been smuggled in, but the assumption is that Hamas has managed to receive very few of the advanced missiles. Due to the difficulties in smuggling arms, the Gazan weapons industry is making great efforts to improve its capabilities, and in particular to extend the range of its homemade rockets. Hamas seems to have succeeded in stockpiling a similar number of rockets, in addition to what it had on hand before Cast Lead.
Hamas continues to send dozens of activists for military training in foreign countries, particularly in Iran and Lebanon. They travel via Rafa and Egypt.