Three Israelis were arrested about a month ago on suspicion of smuggling illegal goods into Gaza, including metal and equipment apparently meant for tunnel construction, training and weapons manufacturing. Details of the three Israelis' arrest were not cleared for publication by the courts until Monday.
For the last three weeks, the Israel Police, along with the Shin Bet and the Israel Tax Authority have been conducting an investigation into the smuggling ring, culminating in indictments issued Monday. Police sources noted the significance of such charges against Israelis, including funding a terrorist group, communicating with the enemy, money laundering, and tax evasions totaling millions of shekels.
According to suspicions, the three Israelis were part of a network that smuggled illegal goods into the Gaza Strip for the various terror organizations based there. The goods included large quantities of metal and metal pipes, meant for rebuilding underground tunnels that were destroyed during Operation Protective Edge last summer, as well as tunnel elevators apparently meant for transporting kidnapping victims.
The Shin Bet has called the conspiracy a "smuggling lane from Israel to Hamas," and stated that it was a "well-oiled machine operated by Hamas to purchase tools and materials that aided in bolstering its military capabilities in Gaza." The Shin Bet added that much of the materials were transferred directly to Hamas training camps.
Materials hidden within humanitarian aid
Raids uncovered large amounts of illegal materials, some of which was hidden among materials permitted for entry into Gaza. The Shin Bet cited one case in which raw materials used for building explosives were found hidden among humanitarian aid shipment meant for the Gaza Strip. The materials were found during inspection at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
Metal parts, found in Israel's south, were meant to be smuggled into Gaza. Photo: Israel Police.
Two of the Israeli suspects, who own a metal business in central Israel would transfer truckloads of iron to the third contact, Micha Peretz, a resident of Mivtachim, near the Israel-Gaza border. Peretz would then oversee the goods' transfer to Gaza, into the hands of a Gazan businessman, known for his association with Hamas, who would pay the Israelis for the goods. In addition, an indictment was issued against Khan Younis resident Naji Zoarub Mashadeh.
Suspicions arose in January 2014, when one of the truckloads of goods was turned away at the Kerem Shalom crossing by the Defense Ministry. The three suspects were informed then that the goods were falling to Hamas' hands and being used for tunnel construction. According to suspicions, the suspects continued transferring goods even after being informed of their subsequent uses.
Following the warning from the Defense Ministry, the suspects' contact in Gaza was blacklisted, and no longer allowed to transfer goods into the Strip. The two suspects from central Israel then set up a front company through which they received funds transferred from Gaza and laundered through West Bank banks. This launched an undercover investigation that went public a few weeks ago. Israel Police investigators looked into dozens of suspects involved in the conspiracy, including the truck drivers who transferred the materials, though they were found to have no knowledge of the crimes being committed. Aside from the Israelis, additional suspects in Gaza were also arrested and facing indictment.
The two suspects from central Israel do not have criminal backgrounds, though the third suspect has a history of tax offenses, and has done business in the past transferring legal materials into Gaza with Defense Ministry approval.
Metal rods, found in Israel's south, were meant to be smuggled into Gaza. Photo: Israel Police.
According to police sources, the suspects admitted during questioning that they knew the good's destination, their purpose, and that the transfer of such goods was illegal. Some of the suspects have expressed regret of their actions and are now cooperating with the investigation, and have claimed that they acted out of financial need. The police claim that the three suspects made millions of shekels, as the amount of laundered funds totaled five million shekels, and the value of the amount of goods transferred valued at three million shekels. The Shin Bet estimates that Hamas spent over $30 million on these materials, and paid the Israeli smugglers upwards of 1.5 million shekels ($375,000) per month.
Investigators asked the suspects why three Jewish Israelis would transfer such goods meant for rebuilding terror tunnels, during an especially dangerous time in Israel-Gaza relations.
The Defense Ministry responded to the events, noting that "defense officials from the Border Authority at the Kerem Shalom crossing were integral in thwarting attempts at smuggling along with the Shin Bet and the Israel Police, and their joint effort led to the eventual indictments. For a long time, the Border Authority has warned against the threat of smuggling."
The Defense Ministry response did not include information pertaining to how the smugglers managed to send such large amounts of prohibited materials into Gaza, nor what precautions will be put into place to prevent future smuggling. The Shin Bet, on the other hand, stated that the authorities will ramp up supervision on goods being transferred into Gaza, and those breaking the law will face criminal charges.
The Israeli suspect from the Gaza border area is married with three children, including one currently serving as a combat soldier in the IDF. They apparently had no idea of the smuggling operation, and were shocked by the news. Residents of the same town wanted to make it clear that the suspect acted alone. One resident said "we all serve in the IDF, there are many army officials among us, and we hosted many soldiers during Operation Protective Edge. We're stunned by this scandal."
In late January, Palestinians noted the arrest of a few businessmen at the Erez border crossing, without citing any reason for their detainment aside from claims that Israel sought to harm the Palestinian economy and Palestinian businessmen.
Responding to the arrests, an advocacy organization for Palestinian prisoners in Gaza stated "we know that there are a few businessmen under arrest but we don't have any information about their supposed crimes. Regardless, Israel continues to tighten its siege on Gaza and every aspect of Gazans' lives. Businessmen have suffered from this for years, and we hope that Israel will not take advantage of these events as an excuse to continue its blockade on Gaza.