Analysis

Despite Knee-jerk Accusations, Failed Hit on Hamas Security Chief Doesn't Look Like an Israeli Job

Salafists in Gaza have enough reasons to want to see Tawfiq Abu Naim dead

Hamas chief Ismail Haniya visiting Tawfiq Abu Naim, head of the group's security forces, at a hospital in Gaza City, October 27, 2017.
HANDOUT/AFP

Friday’s assassination attempt on senior Hamas man Tawfiq Abu Naim in Gaza doesn’t seem like an Israeli operation, despite the almost knee-jerk accusations. Not that Israel necessarily recoils from such methods.

In March, Mazen Fuqaha was shot to death on the Gaza beach. Back in 2011 he was released from Israeli prison in the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap, was deported to Gaza and helped finance and plan terror attacks in the West Bank and Israel proper. Then too, Israel was held responsible. But the current case is different for a number of reasons, so it’s possible that this time too it was an inside job, perhaps by one of the Salafi groups that identify with the Islamic State.

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Abu Naim, who was moderately wounded in a car explosion after he left a mosque following prayers, was also released in the Shalit deal six years ago this month. But unlike Fuqaha, who was raised in the town of Tubas in the Jordan Valley, Abu Naim was born in the Gaza Strip. He's considered close to the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar. Sinwar promoted some of his Shalit-deal friends to senior positions when they returned to the Strip.

Abu Naim heads the Hamas security forces in Gaza, and unlike Fuqaha, he hasn’t helped plan terrorism against Israel. One of his functions has been to lead the fight against people suspected of collaborating with Israel. But most of his efforts in recent years have focused on the war against the Salafi groups that openly rebelled against Hamas rule, clash with its security forces and sometimes still fire rockets at Israel, especially in defiant moves to ratchet up tensions between Hamas and Israel.

Hamas suppressed these organizations violently while secretly assisting another Salafi group, Walayat Sinai, the Islamic State branch in Sinai, which is fighting Egypt. But Cairo’s pressure in recent months has forced Hamas to distance itself from the Sinai group and limit its assistance to it, which included secret hospitalizations in Gaza of fighters wounded in clashes with the Egyptians. At the same time, the battle grew more heated against extremist groups in Gaza.

These are good reasons for the Salafists to hit Abu Naim: the harsher steps against them (including dozens of arrests), Hamas’ drawing closer to Egypt, and the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Abu Naim’s forces are responsible for policing the border between Gaza and Egypt at Rafah — operations that keep the Salafi forces apart on the two sides of the border.

These actions were expanded as part of the commitment to Egypt following the reconciliation agreement, which was signed under Egyptian sponsorship in Cairo at the beginning of this month. This fact could also have turned Abu Naim into a target for opponents of the reconciliation deal, even from within Hamas.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, who visited Abu Naim in the hospital, accused Israel of the assassination attempt. But a few hours later, it was reported from Gaza that a suspect affiliated with a Salafi group had been arrested. Even what appears to be a somewhat amateurish attempt — an explosion that caused limited damage to the front of a car — might show that the perpetrators weren’t members of a skilled intelligence force.

Haniyeh’s statement sounded like lip service to the movement’s sacred principle of opposition to Israel. In fact, although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and the rest of the cabinet all objected to the PA-Hamas reconciliation deal, Israel still maintains a close strategic partnership with Egypt.

There’s a large gap between internal criticism of the deal and a violent attempt to sabotage it by damaging an agreement achieved by Egyptian mediators. That’s apparently a line Israel wouldn’t cross under the current circumstances.