New marine force in Gaza has Israel on guard

Hamas' Interior Ministry in the Gaza Strip has announced the formation of new marine force tasked with protecting Gaza’s shores from smuggling operations, but Israel views the new military branch as part of the resistance.

al-monitor Members of the newly created Gazan Maritime Forces are seen in a still from a video filmed at the organization's launch on the beach in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, Dec. 22, 2016. Photo by National News Agency.

ינו 6, 2017

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The Ministry of Interior in the Gaza Strip, under Hamas’ control, announced during a Dec. 22 event held on a Gaza beach the creation of special marine forces as an independent entity from the other security institutions.

The establishment of this new security body sends a challenge to Israel. Eight years ago, the first Israeli war on the Gaza Strip broke out with sudden air raids that targeted security institutions across Gaza and claimed the lives of more than 350 security officers, among them police Chief Toufic Jaber and Attorney General Ismail Jaber.

Maj. Gen. Toufic Abu Naim, the current head of Hamas' security apparatus, said during the event, “The marine force will work to ensure the security of the coast of the Gaza Strip, which extends over 39 kilometers [24 miles]. The force will be responsible for the security of the coastal region to protect it from smugglers and outlaws and organize the fishing activities.”

Interior Ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Bazm told Al-Monitor, “The marine force is an independent body tasked with developing the security measures along the Gaza coast and monitoring the shores to look out for smuggling operations and security breaches.”

Bazm said that 600 members of the new force are veterans of various security units of the Interior Ministry.

Hamas-affiliated Change and Reform Bloc parliamentarian Marwan Abu Rass told Al-Monitor, “Any country that has a coast must have a marine security force to ensure its naval security and monitor its coasts.” He added, “Members of the new Palestinian security body have the right to receive adequate training to do their jobs with expertise.”

The new marine force is intended to deter drug traffickers and prevent communication between Palestinian spies who collect information about Hamas and Israeli officers via the sea, which Israel controls.

The Hamas-affiliated security apparatus is expending serious effort to arrest spies. On April 24, Al-Majd, a security website affiliated with Hamas, said that security forces in Gaza arrested a fisherman who has worked as a spy for Israel since 2010 for sharing information about Hamas activities and handing over names to Israeli officers.

Retired general and commentator on security affairs Youcef al-Sharkawi told Al-Monitor that despite the civil and security goals of the new marine force, “Israel is afraid that the new marine force will boost the marine capacities of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas’ military wing]. Israel accuses al-Qassam Brigades of exploiting the sea to smuggle weapons and diving equipment to prepare for the next military confrontation with it.”

On Sept. 13, Israel said it had arrested fisherman Jihad Aryashi in August after he smuggled explosive material used to make Hamas weapons in his boat. The Israeli authorities have yet to issue an official statement on the matter. However, the Israeli Al-Masdar website published an article Nov. 7 about Hamas' marine preparations. The article read, “Israel is cautiously monitoring Hamas’ attempts to increase its smuggling of weapons by sea to the Gaza Strip and is keeping an eye on the increased training of the movement’s marine commandos.”

Sharkawi believes that Israel mostly fears Hamas forces will infiltrate Israeli seaports, planting bombs there or raiding coastal Israeli towns.

The 2014 war on Gaza witnessed the first Hamas attempt to infiltrate Israel by sea. Hamas claims that four al-Qassam Brigades divers crossed the sea borders and entered the Israeli Zakim military base on July 8, 2014, and clashed with Israeli forces for hours before they were killed. Israeli sources claim the divers never made it onto the base.

Sharkawi noted that this operation was significant for Israel because it revealed Hamas’ marine capacities and development.

Bazm explained, however, “Most security forces in the Interior Ministry in Gaza are not linked to the Palestinian resistance’s work, and their mission is restricted to serving citizens.”

Abu Rass believes that Israel’s concerns are unfounded. He said, “Israel is afraid of being two-timed. It does not want the ruling authorities in Gaza to develop its resistance apparatus under security pretexts. These concerns are unjustified. We have the right to develop our security apparatus, and we don’t care about Israel’s security qualms.”

He added, “The resistance has the right to arm itself, but does not do so through the security bodies of the Interior Ministry. The resistance factions have their own ways. Israel’s arrest of fishermen on the grounds of smuggling weapons to Hamas is devoid of truth.”

Nevertheless, the Israeli navy will restrict the work of the new marine force to 10 kilometers (6 miles) of the shore. Though the 1993 Oslo Accord granted Gazans the right to sail a distance of 32 kilometers (20 miles), Israel did not abide by the agreement.

Notably, Israel treats the Hamas-affiliated civil security and police institutions as military bodies, destroying its infrastructure during the first Israeli war on Gaza in 2008. Therefore, Sharkawi would not be surprised by an Israeli attack on the new marine force during any new clashes.

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