Security and Defense: Hitting Hamas where it hurts

OC Central Command, Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, spearheading campaign against terrorism in the West Bank.

July 16, 2009 19:20
Security and Defense: Hitting Hamas where it hurts

OC central shamni. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

On the surface, there is not really anything in common between Al Capone and Hamas. One is a famous Chicago gangster; the other is a lethal terrorist organization that is responsible for thousands of deadly attacks against Israel in recent years. What the two have in common though is the method used by authorities to bring them down. The FBI could not find sufficient evidence to indict Capone for racketeering, and in the end he was convicted on charges of income-tax evasion. This tactic of going after a suspect's finances is quietly but efficiently being employed today against Hamas in the West Bank. The man responsible for formulating and applying this new methodology is OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni. The soft-spoken, 50-year-old Shamni was appointed to his post in May 2007 after serving for two tumultuous years - including during the Second Lebanon War - as prime minister Ehud Olmert's military aide. When he entered Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem's Neveh Ya'acov neighborhood, the fight against Hamas was at its peak. The United States was training Palestinian forces to combat Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and the IDF was conducting daily operations in the West Bank against the terrorist organization, repeating the same routine it had initiated with Operation Defensive Shield in 2002. But two months after taking up his position, everything changed. Hamas violently took over the Gaza Strip, running over Fatah's forces and effectively removing the Palestinian Authority from power. While many in the political and defense establishments lamented the Hamas-Fatah rift and its negative impact on any future diplomatic process, Shamni did not waste time in taking advantage of what he saw as a new opportunity. He immediately convened a meeting of top IDF, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Mossad officials and began thinking of a way to prevent a similar Hamas takeover from taking place in the West Bank. The upshot was the establishment of a new unit in Central Command called the "Dawa Team." The idea was to go after Hamas's Dawa financial infrastructure and not just its terrorist tentacles. "Hamas is not only a terrorist organization that tries to attack Israel with suicide bombers and gunmen," explains a senior Central Command officer. "Through its Dawa charitable organizations, it became capable of providing all the welfare services for Palestinians in the West Bank and was able to present itself as an alternative to the PA, which was perceived as corrupt." Following the January 2006 PA parliamentary elections, this was the reality in the territories, and Hamas was effectively in control of all the welfare services in the West Bank. Shamni decided to put an end to this. The Dawa team got to work immediately and with intelligence information collected by the Shin Bet and other agencies began piecing together Hamas's elaborate financial pyramid. The intelligence officers, legal experts and Arabic-speaking representatives of the Civil Administration on the team quickly discovered that the Dawa charities were the owners of multimillion dollar assets including malls, buildings and parking lots. While most of the money was going to welfare services, a significant percentage was funding the group's terrorist activities. "We wanted to smash Hamas's capabilities," the officer explained. The team went through the charities' financial records and crunched the numbers. The result was the incrimination of most of the charities as supporters of terrorist activity. The team then took the evidence to court and received authorization to confiscate the assets. The high drama came in July 2008, when IDF troops swept into downtown Nablus and took over a 70-store mall. But Shamni didn't stop there. As the prime minister's military aide, Shamni - a graduate of the US National Defense University and one of the only IDF officers to undergo training with the Green Berets - had been exposed to the inner workings of the Israeli political and diplomatic system. He also became intimately familiar with the different players on the Palestinian side, including Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. After the Nablus raid, the PA called on the IDF to stop. "We said to them that we would not stop them from taking action against the Dawa if they wanted to," another officer said. "We told them that the more they did, the less we would." This has been the guiding theme in the West Bank over the past two years. After Hamas's takeover of Gaza, Shamni met with the US security coordinator Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, and together they built what has become known as the "Jenin model" under which PA forces, trained by the US in Jordan, have deployed in the city to enforce law and order. In response, the IDF scaled back its operations in the city. Four US-trained battalions have already deployed in the West Bank and another three are to join them by the middle of next year. There are another 24,000 PA policemen and security personnel in the West Bank. The beginning, though, was not smooth. Two weeks after the PA battalion deployed in Jenin, it ran out of intelligence on Hamas targets and the economic initiatives that were an integral part of the model were not receiving international backing. After two months, Dayton came back to Central Command and with Shamni devised a new model that put more emphasis on the economic side. The Palestinian deployment in Jenin was made possible by the IDF's crushing of the Islamic Jihad infrastructure in the city. The IDF also implemented the "fugitive agreement" under which it gave 400 terrorists the opportunity to lay down their weapons and cease their terrorist activity. In exchange, the IDF promised not to arrest them. As demonstrated in last month's operation against Hamas in Kalkilya - during which five Hamas members and four PA security officers were killed - the PA is taking its mission seriously and understands that it needs to keep Hamas weak. The results have been beneficial for the Palestinians. Since last year, the IDF has removed 27 manned checkpoints and dozens of earth mounds in the West Bank, and Shamni is considering removing more. For the first time in years, the IDF points out, a Palestinian can travel from Jenin to Hebron without having to pass a single checkpoint. These gestures, aimed at bolstering the PA and improving the Palestinians' quality of life, come with an element of risk. The removal of roadblocks deep in the West Bank means that the checkpoints along the Green Line are the last barrier where a potential terrorist can be stopped. On the flip side, the PA is doing a much more effective job of curbing Hamas activities in the West Bank. "Not long ago, we used to have to send an entire battalion into Jenin to arrest a terror suspect due to the level of violence," an IDF officer said. "Nowadays, we can send in smaller teams that work quickly and quietly." The best proof though was during Operation Cast Lead. In the past, fearing uprisings, the IDF would always impose a curfew and closure on the West Bank during military operations in the Gaza Strip. During Cast Lead, however, there was no need for a closure and thousands of West Bank workers continued to enter Israel daily.

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