ISIS Fighters Entered Gaza Through Tunnels From Egypt to Train, Israeli General Says

Though Hamas is working to distance itself from radical forces in Sinai and in Iran, some in its ranks have helped Islamic State operatives receive help in Gaza.

Jack Khoury
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Hamas security forces deploy on the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, April 21, 2016.
Hamas security forces deploy on the Palestinian side of the border with Egypt in Rafah in the Gaza Strip, April 21, 2016.Credit: Khalil Hamra, AP
Jack Khoury

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, said Friday that members of the Islamic State group have recently entered the Gaza Strip through tunnels from Egypt to undergo military training in the Hamas-ruled enclave.

Mordechai said operatives entered Gaza a few days ago with the support of a well-connected Hamas affiliate in the city of Rafah – which straddles the Gaza-Egypt border. He also said that the organization is helping the ISIS fighters receive medical care in Gaza's hospitals. Mordechai made the comments in an interview with the Saudi news site Elaph.

According to the Israeli general, the operatives used ties with Sayid Abed El Aal, who is close to Hamas and holds sway in the border town of Rafah. Mordechai explained that Hamas' field commanders were informed, and its top military and political leaders were updated on the issue. Coincidentally, Elaph has in recent weeks published reports of wounded men being transferred from the restive Sinai Peninsula into Gaza.

As part of its attempt to mend ties with Egypt, Hamas is trying to create the semblance that it is distancing itself from Iran and ISIS, at least publically. Hamas hopes the Egyptian regime will alter its policy towards to Gaza and reopen the crossing in Rafah.

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt after it was opened for two days by Egyptian authorities, Gaza Strip, May 11, 2016.Credit: Said Khatib, AFP

However, officials in the Israeli defense establishment say that Hamas' efforts are mainly outwards and that de facto the group has not cut its ties with Iran and other radical Salafist groups, some of which are currently locked in an ongoing battle with Egyptians in Sinai. Occasionally, reports linking the group to terrorists involved in attacks in Sinai are made public, causing much embarrassment to the group's leaders.

According to Palestinian sources in Gaza, though Hamas is actively courting Egypt, there are some, especially in it military leadership, that view Iran and Salafist groups as  their main source of funds and arms, and are reluctant to give up the ties. Nonetheless, Hamas is facing increasing pressure from the Saudi royal house to cut ties with Iran and respect Egyptian national security interests.

Two months ago, a delegation from Hamas' political leadership traveled to Cairo to meet with the heads of Egypt's intelligent services.

Hamas reported that the meeting was positive and reiterated that it was not involved in any activities that harm Egypt's national security. As part of understandings reached during the talks, Hamas has begun to send patrols to monitor the Gaza-Egypt border and man its checkpoints.