If members of the Israeli special operations force that Hamas exposed in the Gaza Strip this month indeed impersonated aid workers, as Walla news and the Israel Television News Company reported, it will reinforce and even retroactively justify Hamas’ longtime suspicions.
Hamas has in the past claimed that, consciously or not, international humanitarian organizations assist Israel’s Shin Bet security service and the Israeli military.
This is exactly what the employees of foreign aid organizations, as well as Palestinian ones with some foreign staff, fear. A senior employee in one of these organizations told Haaretz that if Israel has abused the network of international or local aid groups, it could undermine the critical activities of organizations large and small: The Hamas government that controls the Gaza Strip might take precautions that will interfere with their entry into the Strip and their work.
“No one will listen to the protest of a small organization on the exploitation of humanitarian activity,” he said. “Large organizations need to make their voices heard.”
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Foreigners who entered the Gaza Strip last week reported more exacting questioning than usual at Hamas’ border control position and strict identity checks of passengers at checkpoints within the Strip.
A Westerner who visits the Strip frequently told Haaretz they sense some suspicion on the part of ordinary Gazans toward foreigners — and not for the first time.
What is interesting is that Palestinian media outlets did not publish the suspicions about the Israel special force impersonating aid workers: In other words, Hamas did not raise this claim publicly.
According to versions heard in the Gaza Strip, the members of the unit carried forged Palestinian ID cards, presumably of Gazans, and said they had food distribution coupons. It also seems they spent a number of days in the Strip before they were exposed.
Working for an aid organization is a logical and convenient cover story. As part of the strict limits on movement by Israel, foreigners and Palestinians who are not residents of the Strip, who work for international aid organizations (and foreign journalists) are among the few who receive entry permits into the Gaza Strip.
Hamas senior official Moussa Abu Marzouk was quoted as hinting that the entry of the unit was made possible through a checkpoint of the Palestinian Authority, at the Erez border crossing.
His statement fed the constant suspicions against the PA’s security services of cooperation and help for the Israeli security forces. But knowing how the official entry process into the Gaza Strip from Israel works raises doubts about the feasibility of this scenario.
In addition to navigating the bureaucracy of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories to obtain an entry permit from Israel, foreigners seeking to enter the Gaza Strip must also coordinate their travel in advance with the Hamas authorities.
To enter officially through the Erez crossing, you must submit full identification details, including details on the purpose of the visit and the organization and identity of contact persons inside the Gaza Strip.
The military unit’s entry through Erez would have required Israel to use the name of a well-known aid organization, which would not raise any suspicions. Did the Israel Defense Forces use the name of an organization such as UNRWA or an Italian aid group funded by the European Union, for example?
And if it turns out that to carry out the mission, the IDF invented a fictitious aid group a long time ago, and in doing so received the help of COGAT, from now on it can be expected that every real new organization will find it difficult to be trusted by the authorities and residents in the Gaza Strip.
On entry to the Gaza Strip, those who receive permits go through four checkpoints: On the Israel side of the crossing, at the first registration position of the PA on the other side of the crossing, at the checkpoint of the PA police, which was once the Hamas checkpoint and was handed over to the PA about a year ago when it was attempted to establish a reconciliation government, and at the new registration position of Hamas, which has restarted operations these last few months.
Even those bearing Palestinian identity cards — which according to reports the members of the unit carried — must pass through the posts of the PA and Hamas and answer questions. At the Hamas position, suitcases are not always checked, but a person who often enters the Gaza Strip told Haaretz that the check — even if only to search for alcohol — is always a risk to be taken into account.
It is hard to believe that the members of the Israeli military unit would have entered Gaza without weapons, on one hand, or would have risked exposure, on the other, he said.
One gets the impression from media reports that Hamas and the IDF are both busy competing over who was humiliated more by the exposure of the unit’s operations. What is certain is that making humanitarian aid into a tool in the service of Israeli military intelligence contributes to the feeling of vulnerability and isolation of the Strip.