A 12-year Hamas intelligence operation has ended with the arrest of Mohammed el-Halabi, a Gaza Strip resident who headed the local branch of World Vision, an international aid organization. The indictment says Hamas’ military wing planted Halabi at World Vision to steal money, equipment and goods that he transferred to Gaza.
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The Shin Bet security service arrested Halabi at the Erez crossing on June 15. It believes that since he was appointed World Vision’s head in the Strip six years ago, he has funneled tens of millions of dollars to Hamas’ military wing.
The affair could harm Hamas in several respects. It will raise justified suspicions among international aid groups about their Gaza employees, and these organizations will almost certainly tighten their supervision of money transfers.
Also, Hamas had crafted an image as an honest organization that, unlike the Palestinian Authority, didn't cheat the people and whose top officials didn't siphon off funds. Halabi admitted he stole money for Hamas’ military wing, but the Shin Bet says he also admitted to transferring money to families of Hamas militants at the broader population's expense.
The charges corroborate claims in Gaza in recent years that heavy taxes on the people finance Hamas’ operations. This will certainly embarrass the group.
Israel will be able to leverage the Halabi case to demand that other aid agencies like UNRWA tighten their supervision of Hamas. But Israel will have to tread lightly to avoid creating a crisis with these organizations that provide a living for hundreds of thousands of Gazans. The relative calm in Gaza also depends on the residents’ livelihood. Still, the Halabi affair will no doubt give Israeli PR ammunition in its war with Hamas over influence on the international community.
A senior Shin Bet official expressed shock and disgust over any robbing of food from Gaza’s needy and giving it to militants’ families. The Shin Bet’s concern is touching, but there’s no shock about Hamas being a terror group that has killed hundreds of civilians while fighting Israel. Can its callousness toward the Strip’s poor really surprise anyone?
Despite the latest discovery, Israeli defense officials believe that Hamas isn’t headed for war against Israel this summer. The reconstruction of Gaza after the devastation of the 2014 war is progressing slowly. Since the generals’ revolution in Cairo there years ago, Hamas no longer receives strategic support from Egypt, and the organization hasn’t established alternative relations with the other key Muslim states of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Hamas’ military capability is still limited, especially in rockets. Since the Egyptians destroyed most of the smuggling tunnels from Sinai in Rafah, no standard-issue weapons, most of which had been smuggled from Iran, have been brought into Gaza. Hamas must instead develop its own rockets, whose power and precision are inferior. So if fighting with Israel breaks out in the next few months, it will be caused by a specific event rather than a planned war by either side.
Hamas’ leadership appears to be split. The military wing’s most dominant figure is now Yahya Sinwar, who was released in the 2011 prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit. This wing disagrees with Hamas’ political leader Khaled Meshal, who is based in Qatar, over several issues.
Sinwar and his colleagues want to renew the ties with Iran that have been weakened due to Syria’s civil war. And they want to allocate more money to Gaza at the West Bank’s expense.
Meshal fears that a thaw with Iran would strain Hamas’ relations with the Sunni countries. And Meshal wants to funnel more money to the West Bank, probably hoping to launch terror attacks against Israel and weaken the PA.
Last month an agreement was reached to transfer $30 million from Qatar to Gaza, to finance the wages of state employees there. The money will not be passed directly to the Hamas government but will be distributed individually to every civil servant. Other Gulf states may also agree to pay wages in Gaza in the coming months. This too is supposed to help maintain the calm in the Strip, and Israel has given its tacit approval.
But these moves are clouded by the Israeli civilians who are missing in Gaza and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers that are held by Hamas. Negotiations on a deal to return them never gained pace, and the families are searching for a way to get Hamas back to the table.
The families aren’t happy with the cabinet discussion on adopting the Shamgar Committee report that recommends harsher rules for prisoner swaps. This could make it even harder to reach a deal with Hamas, which wants another Israeli capitulation like the Shalit deal.
The busy Kerem Shalom crossing
The government and defense officials seem more attentive to the possible effects of an economic crisis in Gaza on military developments than they were before the 2014 war.
Over the last two years Israel has allowed considerably more imports into Gaza; some 600 to 1,000 trucks a day pass through the Kerem Shalom crossing. But this massive traffic at the Strip’s southern corner is damaging the road, and the convoys are endangering the other drivers on the road – which serves most Gaza-border communities – causing traffic jams.
A decision to limit the traffic, following protests by Israeli regional councils in the area, was opposed by the Defense Ministry, which feared that restrictions on the Kerem Shalom crossing would increase tensions with Gaza.
A partial solution is in the offing. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories has returned to using the Erez crossing in the Strip’s far north for goods. At this stage it’s only being used to let new cars in.
It will cost around 100 million shekels ($26 million) to build infrastructure at Erez capable of handling at least part of the truck convoys, but it would make a palpable difference to anyone plagued by traffic on the border.
COGAT and the Shin Bet are at loggerheads over the awarding of exit permits from the Strip. The coordinator has recently increased the number of exit permits for business and medical visits to Israel and the West Bank, in an attempt to reduce the damage caused by the Gaza blockade.
The permits require the approval of the Shin Bet, which went along with the increase until it discovered that some people leaving Gaza, none of whom have a security record, have been passing messages for Hamas – and sometimes money – to militants in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
As a result, the Shin Bet imposed more stringent checks on departures from the Strip, withdrew exit permits from businesspeople and arrested a number of suspects. Palestinians thus complained they were being unnecessarily detained and harassed.
This is a microcosm of the entire Palestinian-Israeli mess. Israel can’t separate Hamas in Gaza from the PA in the West Bank, even if it has benefited from the rift in Palestinian politics.
Whenever Israel eases the pressure on Gaza, even if only slightly, it opens a gap used by Hamas not only for terror against Israel but also for undermining the PA in the West Bank.