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Is Hamas exploiting Libya chaos to smuggle arms into Gaza?

The Times reported that a Hamas envoy to Libya has set up an arms-smuggling group to funnel weapons to the Gaza Strip, which was categorically denied by Hamas.
People watch as rockets are fired during a military drill by Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas and other Palestinian armed factions in Gaza City on December 29, 2020. (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS / AFP) (Photo by MAHMUD HAMS/AFP via Getty Images)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — “The Palestinian militant group Hamas used the chaos of Libya’s civil war to set up an arms-smuggling group that tried to funnel anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to Gaza,” The Times reported Feb. 8. 

Citing documents it has received, the British daily continued that the group “was given the job of diverting arms intended for Libyan battlefields through Egypt and used middlemen and Hamas militants in Turkey and Qatar to circumvent an Israeli blockade on Gaza.” 

The arms-smuggling group was set up by Marwan al-Ashqar, Hamas’ envoy to Libya who was arrested in 2017 by Libyan authorities and tried two years later on charges of smuggling and possession of weapons for a period of 10 years in prison, the newspaper reported.

According to the judicial records reviewed by The Times, Ashqar admitted receiving orders to purchase weapons for Hamas leaders during a 2011 meeting in Gaza, which was attended by the movement’s leaders, including Hamas’ political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh, and that he obtained a Palestinian diplomatic passport to facilitate the mission.

In a statement to Al-Monitor, Hamas’ spokesman Hazem Qasem denied these allegations, saying, “Some parties have been spreading fabricated news in different countries, to pit the public opinion in these countries against Hamas.” 

He said, “Hamas is active in various arenas but abides by a rule of noninterference in the domestic affairs of any country, respecting their sovereignty. Hamas also mobilizes support for the Palestinian cause, as it is a national liberation movement. Hamas has nothing to do with Ashqar and he is not Hamas' envoy to Libya.”

He noted, “These reports aim to justify the ongoing blockade on the Gaza Strip to the international public opinion, which is calling for the siege to be lifted.” 

Qasem, however, stressed the full right of Hamas, as a national liberation movement, to acquire all necessary equipment and tools to defend the Palestinian people, underlining that this right is guaranteed by international law and humanitarian norms.

“The Israeli army should be the one to be banned from acquiring weapons used to commit massacres against our Palestinian people,” he said, stressing the enormous ongoing efforts on the part of the Israeli army to “prevent the resistance from exercising its right to obtain the necessary tools to defend its people.” 

“But the resistance does not give in to such obstacles,” Qasem said alluding to the local manufacturing of some military equipment.

On Feb. 8, Israeli media reported that helicopters fired a rocket at a boat in the sea of the Gaza Strip, said to be transporting weapons, according to Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee. The report was deleted a few minutes after being published.

This was not the first time that the British daily published a report hostile to Hamas. In January, The Times reported that Turkey has been criticizing Hamas’ activities, as a prelude to restoring ties between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Hamas, however, denied these claims, stressing that Ankara’s relations with the Palestinian factions are good and stable and that the report aimed at undermining ties between Turkey and Hamas. 

Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas does not hesitate to jump on any opportunity to smuggle weapons into Gaza. The situation in Libya is very conducive to this.”

He said, “Hamas gloats about its ability to smuggle weapons into Gaza, especially from Iran.”

Abu Saada stressed that Libya is in a state of security chaos with all the groups and militias fighting there, supported with weapons by several countries, such as Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and Yemen. “Every country supports its allied groups with advanced weapons and anti-aircraft missiles,” he added. “Libya and Egypt share a long border, which does not help the latter to fully control its border."

Abu Saada pointed out that Hamas is not reluctant to develop its military capabilities, whether through manufacturing weapons locally or smuggling advanced ones from abroad. 

Commenting on whether or not The Times report would affect Hamas’ relations with some states, he said, “Libya is currently not a sovereign state. Egypt, however, must be disturbed as weapons pass through its territories, which poses a threat to national security, especially if Salafist groups in the Sinai Peninsula take over part of the smuggled arms.”

Hamas does not wish to strain its relations with Egypt, especially the security understandings reached between the two in 2017, whereby the Islamic movement made promises to Cairo not to smuggle weapons via Egyptian territories, according to Abu Saada.

“Since then Hamas has been keen on smuggling weapons via the sea or via Israel, and then relied on manufacturing [arms] locally and to develop its [military] capabilities,” he said. “The military equipment that is being smuggled by sea is mostly from Iran and Hezbollah.”

Mustafa al-Sawaf, a political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor, “The [Times] report aims to distort the image of Hamas and is baseless.” 

He noted that there is no way that weapons from Libya would enter Gaza without passing through the Egyptian desert and that the Egyptian authorities are very keen on security on the border and on preventing the smuggling of weapons.

He added that the movement has the ability to manufacture weapons locally and does not need to smuggle arms from Libya through Egypt, stressing that the report seeks to pit others against Hamas and cause ill feelings within and outside Hamas.

“It is unlikely that this report would affect relations between Hamas and Libya and another country,” he said, noting that all the concerned countries have the necessary information and tools to refute the information in the report. 

“Hamas is keen on maintaining good relations with all Arab countries,” Sawaf said. “The report is unfounded and we do not even know if Marwan al-Ashqar is a real name or not,” he said, arguing that Hamas has every right to bring in everything it needs to the Gaza Strip in order to defend itself, protect the Palestinian territories and strengthen its defense system against the Israeli aggression. 

He denied that Hamas is boosting its military capacity due to the decrease in arms smuggling to Gaza Strip and drying up its sources, stressing that Hamas seeks self-sufficiency in the manufacturing of arms. 

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