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Iran & Terror Tunnels In A Time Of Palestinian Unity
A terrorist gets out of a tunnel during a graduation ceremony in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 4, 2016. (Photo: SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)

Iran & Terror Tunnels In A Time Of Palestinian Unity

Questions emerge as to Iran’s role in Gaza as Abbas set to take over security control of Strip

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday destroyed a subterranean attack tunnel stretching east from the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, reaching within a mile of the Kibbutz Kissufim border community. According to military officials, construction of the tunnel, which was ongoing, began only after the conclusion of the seven-week war against Hamas in 2014. The IDF did not reveal who dug the passageway but stressed that it ultimately holds Hamas “accountable and responsible” for all violent acts emanating from Gaza as its governing authority.

Seven terrorists were killed in the operation, including two high-ranking members of the Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Arafat Abu Murshad, its central Gaza commander; and his deputy Hassan Abu Hassanein. Two ranking Hamas members who also perished were believed to have died from asphyxiation after they entered the tunnel to save others who were inside when the Israelis collapsed the structure.

The Israeli security echelon is evaluating a number of perplexities stemming from the mission, including whether the presence of both high-ranking Hamas and senior Islamic Jihad loyalists indicates a new level of cooperation presumably tied to the Iranians, with whom Hamas is striving to build its relationship. Earlier this month a Hamas delegation visited Tehran seeking closer ties and more funding to support its military ambitions against the Jewish state.  One distinct possibility is taking “good-cop; bad-cop” to the next level with Hamas camouflaging its involvement in terror in order not to destroy the reconciliation with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, and thereby sacrificing its place in the Palestinian unified government. Islamic Jihad would be the ideal partner for such a scheme.

For Iran, all scenarios appear to be “win-win.” As it extends its reach into Gaza it is consolidating its control over the Lebanese government via the Hizbullah terrorist organization which also provides inroads into southern Syria.

Pointedly, an Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman condemned “the bloodthirsty Zionist regime” for destroying the tunnel, an act he described as precipitated by a desire to “guarantee [Israel’s] security by killing Palestinian youths.”

According to Yaakov Lappin, an Israeli military correspondent and analyst, “Islamic Jihad has had its own tunnel program since 2014 and this particular one appears to have been part of the network. Even so, it is very unlikely that Hamas did not know about it.

“The two groups have in recent years been cooperating,” he explained to The Media Line, “as well as coordinating their responses to Israel based on the understanding that any independent action could pull both groups into an unwanted war.”

Lappin raised the possibility that the Islamic Republic directed its underling to purposely dig into Israeli territory as a provocation. “The Iranians would very much like to turn Gaza into one of the bases that is used to target Israel, as well as to use the enclave as a point of entry into the West Bank, which they have been trying to access for years.”

Speaking to The Media Line, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yosef Kuperwasser, head of the Regional Research Project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, explained that, “The effort dates back to the Second Intifada [a period of intense terrorism characterized by Palestinian suicide bombings between 2000 and 2005]. Tehran has attempted to do this through Islamic Jihad, which it created and completely controls, and also by financing Hamas.”

Dr. Eitan Shamir, former director of the National Security Doctrine Department in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, agrees that Islamic Jihad—and, by extension, Tehran—is asserting itself in the Gaza Strip. “It is clearly taking a more active role, whereas Hamas has recently tried to assume a relatively moderate posture. While both are committed to the ‘resistance’ [read anti-Israel violence], Hamas is more constrained [by political realities].”

Nevertheless, he told The Media Line that “the [destroyed] tunnel was likely known to Hamas, so it may either be ignoring these actions or perhaps trying to operate under the cover of Islamic Jihad. Overall, Hamas cannot put itself in a position to restrain Islamic Jihad as they are both being financed by the same patron.”

The discovery of the attack tunnel—whether constructed with Hamas’ tacit approval to achieve plausible deniability or at its explicit directive—creates additional problems when viewed against the backdrop of the unity deal signed with Abbas’ Fatah faction.

On the diplomatic front, Jerusalem has repeatedly vowed not to engage in peace negotiations with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas and the latest tunnel incident will likely solidify this position, even as Israel continues to cooperate with Abbas on various levels in the West Bank.

It is, after all, in the interest of both parties to ensure that Hamas, in particular, is not able to expand the scope of its terror operations. Additionally, U.S. President Donald Trump’s soon-to-be-unveiled peace initiative will likely provide a “loophole” to effectively sideline Hamas from any talks, thereby enabling Jerusalem to enter into a process with Abbas while saving face.

The situation, however, is more complex and potentially explosive from a security standpoint with Abbas set to assume total control over Gaza by December 1. There is widespread doubt he can prevent Hamas and Islamic Jihad from continuing to arm themselves to the teeth—with the assistance of Iran—while threatening Israel with attack tunnels.

Lappin reinforced the notion that Hamas will remain the dominant military presence in Gaza for the foreseeable future. “Abbas will not be able to send a sizeable security force into the enclave, but rather the idea is that Hamas’ armed wing will pledge allegiance to the unity government. But [the Palestinian leader] is not deluded—he recognizes the limitations.”

According to Kuperwasser, “the lesson for Israel is that it should not be tempted to believe in the illusion that the [Fatah-Hamas] agreement will lead to less terrorism from Gaza.” He further stressed that Jerusalem “should hold up the [tunnel] example to the international community as evidence of what Hamas is and will continue to be.”

Kuperwasser concluded by highlighting the perils of an evolving dynamic in Gaza: “What would have happened if the Palestinian Authority had already assumed responsibility in the Strip and then Islamic Jihad responded to the destroyed tunnel by firing rockets into Israel? And what if there was a further escalation after Israel retaliated?

“Abbas would have been caught in the middle. What would he do in such an impossible situation?”

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