How will Hamas react to Israel's major Gaza border project?

By
June 23, 2017 11:55

As Israel begins construction of an underground barrier to thwart attack tunnels from Gaza, the Islamic group will have to decide whether to react or lose a strategic option.




Hamas ceremony

A Palestinian fighter takes part in a tunnel attack simulation during a graduation ceremony in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, last November. (photo credit:REUTERS)

IN EARLY May, the Defense Ministry closed the tender to construct a concrete barrier to run the length of the Gaza border and prevent Hamas from tunneling into Israel. The new barrier will present the Islamic movement with a dilemma: to react or not to react.

Several major Israeli construction and engineering companies submitted bids for the tender, but lacking the know-how or heavy machinery needed for the ambitious project they teamed up with international companies from China, Australia, South Korea and France.

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The tender was issued by a joint unit of the Defense Ministry and the IDF led by Brig.-Gen. Eran Ophir. The unit is responsible for constructing all the fences and obstacles along Israel’s borders and separating it from both friends and foes.

These include a 200-kilometer fence along the Sinai border with Egypt, some 90 km along the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, dozens of kilometers of fences and topographical obstacles with Lebanon that will eventually stretch from the Mediterranean to Mt. Hermon, 460 km of the West Bank and Jerusalem separation barrier with the Palestinians, and some 30 km with Jordan from Eilat northward to defend the new international airport that is in final stages of construction in the Timna Valley.

In both the West Bank and along the border with Jordan, the plans are to expand the barrier in order to close the borders hermetically.

The fences are mostly six to eight meters high and equipped with technological gadgets, such as cameras and sensors.

But the 65-km Gaza fence will be much more advanced and expensive than the above-mentioned barriers. The cost is estimated at 3 billion shekels and its construction, which is to be divided into geographical and time stages, is expected to be completed by late 2018 or early 2019.

It will be one of the biggest and most complex engineering projects Israel has undertaken and is unique even on a global scale.

The barrier will include heavy concrete slabs strengthened with iron rods that will be inserted dozens of meters underground.

This underground wall will be equipped with sensors produced by the Israeli defense manufacturer Elbit Systems and based on known technologies used to monitor and predict seismic changes. Although the system has passed various tests, its real trials will come when the underground obstacle is operational and is challenged by Hamas’s tunnel diggers and attempts to infiltrate the border.

IDF soldiers near Gaza border (Reuters)

Above ground, a six to eight meter integrated wire fence armed with sensors and cameras will be erected. Observation, control and command centers will be built along its length and the entire barrier, above and below ground, will be linked online to a command center located in a rear military base in the vicinity.

The work will be accelerated this summer.

More than a thousand Israeli and foreign workers – but not West Bank Palestinians – will be employed, alongside engineers, technicians and managers using heavy equipment, digging machines, bulldozers, tractors and trucks.

The IDF will provide security for the project, but the risk is very high. The concentration of so many people and so much equipment right in front of Hamas’s eyes may be too difficult for its leadership to resist and could tempt them to react. However, it’s more likely that if Hamas decides to retaliate it won’t be a capricious decision, but a very calculated one.

Israel believes there are currently some 15 Hamas attack tunnels leading to Israel and when it has the intelligence and the opportunity it has bombed them. Such opportunities arise, for example, when renegade groups in Gaza ignore Hamas’s instructions and fire into Israel, which then uses the retaliatory strikes to attack the tunnels. Once the entire wall has been completed, it will seal off the Gaza Strip’s land border with Israel ‒ leaving only its Mediterranean maritime border as a possible route into Israel.

Jerusalem hopes the wall will prevent Hamas from infiltrating via underground tunnels as it tried, and mostly failed, to do during the 2014 Gaza war. After the war, the IDF announced that it had exposed 31 tunnels leading to Israel and destroyed most of them.

Hamas leaders and commanders have repeatedly stated that they perceive the tunnels as one of their two strategic tools to counter the might of the Israeli army. The other tool is rockets, which have, to a great extent, already been countered by Israel’s missile-defense systems.

SENIOR ISRAELI military officials admit that Hamas has already rehabilitated its military capabilities more or less to the same level as before the 2014 war. In addition to the tunnels and rockets, Hamas is trying to improve and diversify its military capabilities by building a naval commando unit and aerial drones.

Hamas knows that when the wall is completed it will be harder, in fact almost impossible, for its fighters to infiltrate Israel, and the Islamic movement may find itself deprived of one of its most important military assets.

The Hamas dilemma is whether to attack before the barrier is completed and risk an Israeli response that could topple its regime or see one of its strategic tools being neutralized.

Hamas can try to disrupt the erection of the wall by shelling workers and heavy equipment. But, if it does, it exposes itself to a heavy Israeli retaliation that could develop into a major escalation and perhaps a fourth war with Israel in seven years. Hamas also knows full well that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has advocated in the past that, in the event of a new war, Israel must topple the Hamas government in Gaza.

This dilemma comes at the worst time for Hamas as it is in the middle of ideological and leadership deliberations.

A general view shows the Israeli border with the Gaza Strip, as seen from the Israeli side (Reuters)

In February, it selected as prime minister of Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, a military commander who served 20 years in an Israeli prison before being released as part of the prisoner exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit. His predecessor, Ismail Haniyeh, was elected in the second week of May to replace the group’s veteran political leader Khaled Mashaal who, in turn, hopes one day to be Palestinian president at the expense of the PLO.

Hamas’s top body, the Shura Council, also recently announced that it added a new annex to its 1987 Covenant by agreeing to accept a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders as an interim solution. Yet, its shift is without conceding its basic ideology that the entire land of Palestine (including the State of Israel) is holy Islamic Palestine territory and that it refuses to recognize the right of the Jewish people for self-determination and a state of its own.

Tension between Israel and Hamas has been on the rise. In March, Hamas operative Mazen Fuqaha was killed near his home southwest of Gaza City. It was the work of professionals ‒ the assassin or assassins acted calmly, fired four bullets at point-blank range with guns equipped with silencers and left the scene without leaving any trace – at least so far.

Hamas quickly blamed Israel for the killing and, in May, after a prolonged investigation, said that it had unveiled the conspiracy behind the murder – accusing a local Palestinian of acting on behalf of Israeli intelligence.

Israel has maintained its silence. But, assuming it is behind the assassination, it may indicate a new, more aggressive approach if, indeed, Israel can assassinate Hamas leaders in Gaza and abroad without leaving its fingerprints. It means that when Israel has precise intelligence and operational feasibility it can scratch its itch to execute such operations. But it is a dangerous game that can spiral out of control.

Hamas has promised to avenge Fuqaha’s killing, but the organization still doesn’t want to be dragged into a new confrontation because it feels that despite rehabilitating its military capabilities it still is no match for the IDF. And now, the movement faces a new challenge in the form of the underground barrier.

Summer 2017 will mark the third year of quiet along the Gaza-Israel border. Since the end of the 2014 war, cabinet ministers and pundits have warned time and again that a new round is imminent.

So far, they have been wrong. In fact, the last three years have seen the longest period of quiet in the south of Israel since 1968. This has been achieved because of Israeli deterrence. Hamas doesn’t want a new round and neither does Israel.

But what will Hamas do now that it is confronted with a new dilemma. Israel’s intelligence has yet to figure out the answer and the truth is that Hamas itself probably hasn’t decided how to respond. Whatever the answer, a new round of hostilities does not appear likely soon. 

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at @yossi_melman

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