Amid a fragile truce between Hamas and Israel, and despite Hamas’ Nov. 2 announcement that efforts to break the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip had yielded results, a strange security incident shook up the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip the evening of Nov. 11.
Palestinian gunmen fought seven Israeli soldiers who had infiltrated the Gaza Strip in a car. The clash resulted in the death of seven Hamas fighters, including Nour Baraka, the commander of the Khan Yunis branch of Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades (Hamas’ military wing), and a senior Israeli officer. The real mission of the Israeli infiltrating force is unknown, but many speculations emerged.
Israeli Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot said Nov. 12 that a special Israeli force had carried out an operation of great importance to Israel's security. However, al-Qassam Brigades announced the same day that it had foiled an Israeli plan aimed at striking Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
As a result, the situation escalated militarily between Palestinians and Israel. Between Nov. 12-13, more than 460 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israeli settlements in the Gaza envelope, killing an Israeli and injuring 55 others. The Israeli Air Force fired missiles at 160 targets in Gaza, killing seven Palestinians and injuring dozens.
The two sides reached a cease-fire Nov. 13, sponsored by Egypt. Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman announced his resignation Nov. 14, saying his government failed to have a stronger response against Hamas in Gaza.
Ibrahim Habib, a professor of national security at the Management and Politics Academy in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Regardless of the objectives of the Israeli mission, it is clearly part of the secret confrontation between Hamas and Israel, and it could be difficult for Hamas to thwart Israeli security plans.”
Habib added, “The movement has a unique security system, but it suffers from weaknesses, as Israelis can still infiltrate [the Gaza Strip] from the eastern border and the western coast. Israeli security operations are carried out with the help of spies inside Gaza, and Israel will press on [with] these operations even after reaching a truce with Hamas.”
Palestinians and Israelis sought to find out the purpose behind the Israeli mission in Gaza. Israeli military correspondents reported that the soldiers had entered Gaza to assassinate or kidnap a Hamas official in charge of the tunnel network. Other Israelis believe the goal was to obtain critical intelligence needed by Israel if it were to sign a prisoner exchange deal with Hamas.
Hezbollah-affiliated al-Mayadeen channel reported Nov. 12 that the Israeli force's objective was to abduct Marwan Issa, the No. 2 man in al-Qassam Brigades. Issa is at the top of Israel's wanted list due to his important and pivotal role in planning armed operations against it.
Maj. Gen. Wasef Erekat, a Palestinian military expert and former PLO artillery commander, told Al-Monitor, “The serious intelligence failure of the Israeli forces exposed them to the Palestinian resistance. This incident is new evidence of the psychological battle between Palestinians and Israelis. Despite Hamas' modest security capabilities, it can use its friends and allies in the region, who provide it with some advanced security capabilities, to detect and exploit Israel's security weaknesses.”
It seems unlikely that the Israeli forces infiltrated Gaza for assassination purposes, since this does not require taking the exceptional risk of dispatching a special force in the middle of the Strip. Israel would only need to launch an airstrike to not endanger its soldiers on the ground.
However, Israel's desire to know the secrets of Hamas’ tunnels would be worth sending soldiers into the heart of Gaza to kidnap one of the movement’s officials, interrogate him and learn more about the tunnels. This way, Israel could be fully aware of all the details should it decide to carry out an attack against Hamas in Gaza.
Iyad al-Bozm, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Confronting any Israeli security action in Gaza requires us to confront spies, and we have managed to weaken them by arresting and prosecuting them because we believe the security information they are feeding Israel is quite dangerous.”
He added, “However, discovering the Israeli forces in Khan Yunis and all the military chaos it created will force the Israeli intelligence services to think twice now before carrying out similar missions. We are constantly having to deal with Israel infiltrating our security, be it amid escalation or during truce talks.”
Hamas did not publicly reveal the steps taken to confront the secret Israeli operations or avoid them in the future, but it seems the movement is escalating security measures by tightening controls along borders and monitoring those who enter Israel for medical treatment, work or visit.
The Khan Yunis incident was not unprecedented. In May, al-Qassam Brigades discovered that explosives had been placed inside a telephone booth used by the group to make secret contacts. When a team of engineers went to the booth to dismantle the explosives, the bomb went off and six of them were killed. Also in May, Hamas tracked down spies who had killed its military commander, Mazen Fuqaha, in March in Gaza City.
Al-Monitor visited the area of the Nov. 11 clash in eastern Khan Yunis and saw how the Israeli Air Force provided a secure route for the withdrawal of the Israeli force so it would not be captured by Hamas.
The scene of the clash revealed the intensity of the Israeli airstrikes on targets close to the routes the Israeli soldiers took. The Israeli Air Force flew at low altitudes and in large numbers, completely destroying the vehicle that the Israeli soldiers drove, along with all possible evidence that could indicate the purpose of the mission.
A Hamas official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The movement takes security precautions based on the assumption that Israeli intelligence does not stop trying to penetrate our internal front in Gaza, either to collect intelligence or to carry out field missions. All cadres, no matter their ranking, are instructed not to be lenient or negligent in working procedures and in moving from one place to another. In addition, security services in Gaza are equipped to thwart any Israeli special forces infiltrating Gaza, even at the height of the security calm.”
Hamas is expected to be more vigilant with its security following the Khan Yunis incident. Fighters were able to detect the Israeli force this time, but no one knows if other special forces were able to infiltrate Gaza in the past. Meanwhile, this incident will not necessarily stop Israel from sending more soldiers to carry out sensitive security missions, putting both sides on constant alert, even if a truce was reached Nov. 13.
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