Hamas Is Alive and Kicking in the West Bank - but in Remote Control

The organization's new leadership has coalesced in Gaza and its branch in the West Bank has been reinvigorated, exacting a price from Israel while undermining the Palestinian Authority.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

During the peak years of Palestinian suicide terrorist attacks , Israel was regularly dubbing somebody else as head of Hamas’ military wing in the West Bank. The particular individual’s true status or abilities as a handler of terrorists were not always commensurate with the title conferred on him by Israeli intelligence.

In some cases, such people were killed without even knowing themselves that they were what Israel claimed they were. But veterans of the Shin Bet security service and of the Israel Defense Forces still remember the names: Adel Awadallah ‏(who was killed with his brother, Emad, in an operation by the Border Police’s Yamam unit for counter-terrorism in 1998‏), Mahmoud Abu Hanoud ‏(assassinated in 2001 after eluding several previous attempts to kill him‏), and Ibrahim Hamed ‏(who was finally arrested, by the Yamam, in 2006‏).

Some of the terrorists also left a lasting impression on those who tried to capture them. Hamed, convicted of planning terrorist attacks in which a total 46 Israelis were murdered during the second intifada, eluded arrest for more than a decade. Israeli intelligence personnel, who periodically visited his family’s modest home, were impressed by his astonishing tidiness. In one of the apartment’s two rooms, Hamed kept his notebooks from university, “every letter in place, straight lines, meticulous handwriting like that of a German engineer.”

Hamed had no true successor in Hamas. The systematic preventive actions on the part of Israeli forces, along with the work of the Palestinian Authority’s security apparatus, undid the relatively orderly hierarchical structure of Hamas’ military headquarters in the West Bank. What remained was a looser alignment of regional organization: Nablus no longer issued orders to Tul Karm, Hebron did not coordinate positions with Ramallah. Every activist who tried to spearhead broader actions was quickly arrested or assassinated by the Israelis. The junior operatives with limited experience maintained a low profile in order to survive.

That was the situation for five or six years, during which the IDF’s famous notebook of wanted individuals was pretty much emptied out. But the past two years have seen a change. Hamas’ terrorist headquarters in the West Bank is once again alive and kicking, but now by remote control. The new leadership has actually coalesced in the Gaza Strip, thanks to Israel’s indirect − and unintended − help.

This process occurred as a result of the confluence of three phenomena: the joint Israeli-PA effort to prevent terrorism in the West Bank, the tension between Hamas and Egypt in the wake of the military coup in Cairo, and the Gilad Shalit deal.

No new terrorist leadership sprang up in the West Bank, because the younger generation in Hamas was unable to acquire an authoritative status whereby it could set policy and issue directives. Hundreds of the Islamist organization’s members returned to the West Bank after being released from prison in the context of the Shalit deal two years ago, but so far no one possessing the charisma sufficient for assuming leadership has been identified among them.
In the wake of the series of terrorist attacks since September, in which four Israelis were killed, three of the perpetrators have been arrested − and all acted on their own, not as the emissaries of an organization. The problems faced by Israeli intelligence in getting wind of such initiatives in advance have been described in this space extensively in the past few months.

Hamas faces difficulties of another type in the Gaza Strip. The cease-fire that followed Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, is being strictly enforced. Hamas is not risking its violation, either for fear of the IDF’s response or ‏(and probably mainly‏) because of the massive pressure being brought to bear on the organization by the new leadership in Egypt.

Hamas has been caught in a trap since the generals took power in Cairo last July, after ousting and jailing the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military regime now ruling Egypt makes no secret of its loathing for Hamas, owing to the Palestinian movement’s ideological proximity to the Brotherhood. ‏(The ousted president, Mohammed Morsi, was even accused this week in a Cairo court of espionage on behalf of Hamas and Hezbollah.‏) The generals also accuse Hamas openly of perpetrating acts of terrorism against the Egyptian security forces in Sinai.

Over the years, Hamas has agonized over the dilemma that can be posed by having to choose between preserving its rule in Gaza and pursuing the armed struggle against Israel. But whenever it faces a critical choice between the two elements that shape its identity, it always makes the same decision: Survival is more important than mukawama ‏(resistance‏). Egypt has threatened to crush Hamas if it renews its rocket fire into Israel. Accordingly, the organization is currently doing all it can to rein in the activity of its more extreme armed factions. A police force of 800 Hamas activists was established exactly a year ago for this purpose.

Brig. Gen. Michael Edelstein, commander of the IDF’s Gaza Division, last month told residents of Israeli communities in that sector − in a conversation that was taped and leaked to Channel 10 − that “Hamas’ political and military leadership is doing everything to maintain restraint. Suddenly, Hamas has become the policeman of the Gaza Strip.”

What is taboo for Hamas in Gaza is not necessarily seen that way with regard to the West Bank. The reestablishment of the terror networks in the West Bank makes it possible to keep the fire of the struggle burning, and at the same time to exact a price from Israel and undermine the competing government of the PA there. At this stage, the risk for Hamas is not high, because the leadership in the Strip can always claim that its comrades in the West Bank acted on their own against the occupation.

Aftermath of Shalit deal

This is where the third element − the Shalit deal − comes into play. Of the 1,027 prisoners whom Israel released in exchange for the captive soldier, 203 West Bank residents were banished from that territory, 118 of them to the Strip. Given the opportunity, the previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, refused to sign off on such a deal and was aided by a pessimistic opinion delivered by Yuval Diskin and Meir Dagan, the heads of the Shin Bet and the Mossad, respectively, at the time. Olmert’s successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, continued to negotiate for two-and-a-half years and finally struck an Egyptian-mediated deal with Hamas. Netanyahu thwarted the release of the “heavy” prisoners ‏(Hamad, Abdullah Barghouti, Abbas el-Sayed and Marwan Barghouti‏) but released a large number of other senior figures whom Olmert had been unwilling to set free.

Netanyahu was apparently motivated by two considerations: concern that the unwritten “pact” between the state and its combat soldiers would be eroded if Shalit were abandoned to his fate ‏(after all the attempts to rescue him by alternative means failed‏), and concern over the public status of the prime minister himself, in the wake of the social-protest demonstrations of the preceding summer. His decision to go for the exchange was warmly welcomed by the Israeli public. In retrospect, it’s possible that Shalit’s release was the principal concrete achievement by social activist Daphni Leef and her colleagues.

Diskin, who has since embarked on a declared collision course with Netanyahu, continues to oppose the release of prisoners without signs of genuine progress toward a political agreement with the Palestinians. Speaking at a conference held by the Geneva Initiative earlier this month, Diskin termed the release of dozens of Fatah prisoners, as a gesture to the PA − rather than imposing a freeze on construction in the settlements − as a “sickening deal.”

The expulsion to Gaza of the senior Hamas activists who were released was intended to reduce the damage that would have been caused by their return to the West Bank. However, it turns out that exile in Gaza has not persuaded most of them to go into a new line of work. The senior figures among them were coopted into Hamas’ apparatus in the Strip and some have been given key appointments relating to the renewal of the networks in the West Bank.

The most senior figure involved in this is Salah Aruri, who formerly served as Ibrahim Hamed’s infrastructure expert. Israel deported Aruri ‏(about a year before the Shalit deal‏) following a lengthy period when he was held in administrative detention ‏(arrest without trial‏).

Aruri, formerly from Syria and now from Turkey, is spearheading Hamas’ military activity. Working in coordination with him is a large group of activists who were freed in the Shalit deal. This is the group that is leading the military wing in the West Bank, although all of them now ensconced in the Gaza Strip. Prominent among them are names such as Abdel Rahman Ranimat and Mazen Fukha.

Fukha was a key member of Hamas’ Tzurif squad, which operated in the Hebron area during the 1990s. He was convicted, among other acts, of kidnapping and murdering the soldier Sharon Edri and of perpetrating the terror attack on Cafe Apropos in Tel Aviv during Purim 1997, in which three women were murdered. Originally from the Jenin area, Fukha was convicted of dispatching a suicide bomber to blow up a bus at Miron Junction in 2002, an incident in which nine Israelis were murdered. He and Ranimat are joined by a not-inconsiderable group of released prisoners who received concrete jobs, ranging from coordinating networks in different regions of the West Bank, to engaging in educational and information activity for Hamas.

During the past two years, the Shin Bet has identified and preempted about 80 plans for attacks in the West Bank, plans that originated with individuals released as part of the Shalit deal. The plans have been ambitious: attacks with explosives, kidnappings, shootings. The level of execution has so far been mediocre.

Hamas’ headquarters transmits detailed instructions, as well as funds, to the West Bank activists. In several cases, Israel arrested individuals who had undergone military training in Hamas camps in the Strip. They had traveled from the West Bank to Jordan, then to Egypt, and entered Gaza through the Rafah tunnels. Some received training in the running of explosives laboratories. Many of the nighttime arrests made by the IDF in the West Bank are related to the interception of these remotely run networks.

In two cases, relatively senior prisoners who were released by Israel left the West Bank without having returned so far. An official report issued by the Shin Bet a few months ago, which was hardly noticed, detailed other cases from a longer list. Thus, in January a Hamas network was uncovered in Ramallah which received funds and instructions for attacks from Gaza. In February, funds were intercepted that had been transmitted for similar purposes in Hebron, via an association to aid prisoners in Gaza. A similar squad was uncovered the same month in Ramallah. In March, a Hamas military activist was arrested in Qabatiyah, near Jenin. He had received money from Mazen Fukha to perpetrate attacks. In April, a Jenin resident who underwent military training in Gaza together with others from the West Bank was arrested.

These activities are being conducted in Gaza by individuals released in the Shalit deal, sometimes with the aid of Hamas’ interior minister, Fathi Hamad; in general, the political leadership in Gaza, under Hamas’ prime minister Ismail Haniyeh, is less involved in this. Similarly, the military leadership in Gaza leaves most of the work in the West Bank to former residents of that area, who are presently in the Strip. In the new hierarchy that has formed in the wake of Israel’s assassination of Ahmed Jabari in November last year, Marwan Issa is currently described as a kind of unofficial “defense minister” of the movement, in charge of the ties between the military wing and the political echelon.

The true chief of staff is Mohammed Deif, the dean of wanted Hamas individuals, who has escaped a number of Israeli assassination attempts. Deif is in charge of the major efforts to build up Hamas militarily, above all, its rocket arsenal. The crisis with Egypt and the rift between Hamas and Iran − precipitated by Hamas’ refusal to support the Assad regime in Syria − have cut off the arms-smuggling route from Iran to Gaza via Sudan and Egypt.

Instead, Hamas is manufacturing its own Iranian-style M-75 rockets, which have a similar range, and are capable of hitting most of metropolitan Tel Aviv. Nor is Hamas neglecting other schemes. It is digging dozens of tunnels under Gazan cities intended for protecting itself, together with “offensive” tunnels that will be used when the need arises to dispatch armed operatives into Israel. Also underway is the development of unmanned aircraft ‏(the IDF struck at this project in bombing runs during Operation Pillar of Defense‏), and the establishment of a system of observation posts and cameras along the border fence with Israel, with the aim of spotting IDF assault deployment.

Palestinain prisoners to be released in Shalit deal, Ramallah, Oct. 2011Credit: Daniel Bar-On

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