Hamas on Thursday tried to organize a replay of the Dhahi Khalfan exercise against Israel. In January in 2010, Khalfan, the energetic and somewhat egocentric chief of the Dubai police force blew the cover on the assassination of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al–Mabhouh. He is the one who, in a series of dramatic press conferences, revealed the details that had been collected by security cameras and the computer databases of the United Arab Emirates.
The ability of the local authorities to quickly merge different layers of information – ironically, using techniques developed and perfected in Israel – allowed Khalfan to handle his performances, which kept the Arab world spellbound for several weeks. During these appearances, the Dubai police revealed the pictures and aliases of what were described as dozens of Mossad agents, who had infiltrated the emirate with foreign passports as part of the Mabhouh assassination plot. The case caused Israel exceptional embarrassment, as the countries whose passports were used in this dangerous fashion demanded explanations and compensation.
On Thursday Hamas released pictures that it said were taken from the forged documentation of the Israel Defense Forces’ special unit that was uncovered east of Khan Yunis on November 11. An IDF officer was killed in the incident and another was wounded, but the rest of the force was rescued successfully by an air force helicopter after, according to the Palestinians, seven Hamas men were killed and another seven were wounded.
Hamas is trying to achieve two things by publishing the pictures: To impose its narrative, in which it defeated the IDF in the incident, and to derive an operational advantage by exposing Israeli methods and perhaps “burning” the identity of the fighters. But in the end, both sides came out of the incident with serious burns. A secret IDF operation was exposed, which is very unusual, and it resulted in the loss of an outstanding officer and another escalation, in which hundreds of rockets were fired into Israeli territory.
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But while Hamas does have an achievement to show – the foiling of an Israeli operation through what was described as the alertness of a local security force – the IDF fighters escaped, though they were in an operationally inferior position. Instead of ending the incident with a kidnapped soldier, an achievement the organization has continually sought since its experience with Gilad Shalit, Hamas lost a battalion commander and six fighters. That’s why the publication of the pictures was so important to Hamas in its dealings with the Gaza population; it wanted to show a military accomplishment. That’s also the background to the fiery speech given by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar last week, in which he waved a pistol with a silencer that he claimed had been left by the Israeli force when it escaped.
Whether it will achieve its second aim is dependent on the judgment of the Israeli public. In an extremely unusual move, the military censor issued an announcement asking Israeli media to refrain from giving wide coverage to Hamas’ announcements, not to address their veracity, and not to publish the pictures themselves. Indeed, the pictures are totally blurred in all Israeli media reports.
Hamas’ effort is transparent: The organization is making a kind of crowdsourcing effort to obtain information from the Israeli public. If the social networks in Israel will now conduct a hunt in an effort to figure out who the people are in the pictures, with every tweeter and blogger identifying his second cousin from Petah Tikva or someone who was with him in a youth group camp, Hamas will have succeeded in gathering information about the operation.
It seems that in Gaza they believe that what worked for Khalfan in Dubai can work here, in an era where information flows online to an extent and at a speed many times greater than eight years ago and the ability to stop that flow is limited.
Meanwhile, the Hamas announcement ruined some public relations on the Israeli side. The Shin Bet security service published Thursday details about an interesting case in which a Hamas operative from the Hebron area was arrested for allegedly trying to make bombs. The new angle is that the suspect said he was being controlled directly by Hamas’ military wing in Gaza.
For many years now, Hamas in Gaza had been leaving the conduct of terror attacks in the West Bank to Hamas headquarters abroad, headed by Saleh al–Arouri, who lives in Lebanon and Turkey, and to the group of former West Bankers who were freed in the deal for Gilad Shalit and were expelled from the West Bank when they were released.
The vast majority of these attempts were thwarted by the Shin Bet and the IDF. Now it seems that the military wing in the Strip has decided to take matters into its own hands. The idea, according to the Shin Bet, was to commit large-scale terror attacks in the West Bank at crowded sites like a shopping mall, restaurant or bus. They are tactics the organization used with lethal success during the second intifada more than a decade ago. However, this time the intent had been to use remotely controlled bombs, not suicide bombers.
Hamas’ bottleneck in the West Bank is the lack of professional knowledge; it is lacking bomb-making experts because most of them were killed or arrested by Israel during the intifada years. The Gaza command sought to overcome this by long-distance training via cell phone. The mobile phone the suspect was using had been smuggled to him by an elderly woman with cancer who had left the Strip with Israeli permission to be treated in an East Jerusalem hospital.
But Israel got wind of the plans early on. According to the defense establishment, Hamas sought to inflame the West Bank through the attacks and thus open a new front besides the confrontations with Israel during the demonstrations along the Gaza border. (The Hebron suspect was recruited in May, at the height of the clashes in the south.) The Israeli message to Hamas is the opposite – we’re on to your methods, including the exploitation of humanitarian cases – and we will seal the breaches to prevent any similar achievements.