Perhaps the most significant fundamental assumption undermined this week is that Hamas and the Islamic State group identify strictly as rivals: Hamas is trying to maintain calm in Gaza while sparking escalation in Judea and Samaria.
When the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry decided this week to label Tel Aviv shooter and Israeli Arab Nashat Milhem a martyr, the lines between the various terrorist groups working against Israel became blurred.
Clues that emerged immediately after the Dizengoff Street shooting attack pointed to the likelihood that Milhem had drawn inspiration from the Islamic State group. But Milhem was killed in a shoot-out with police last week, so we will never know for sure.
Regardless, Palestinian Authority officials this week were not specific about the details of Milhem’s ideological affiliations or where he lived. But there was one procedural issue that gnawed at them: They are limited to including only the names of east Jerusalem, West Bank or Gaza residents on the martyrs’ list. After a momentary snag, they released a formal statement saying that Milhem was a martyr “who saturated the soil of our land with his pure blood.”
Both Milhem’s neighborhood and his wider circle of acquaintances challenged assumptions this week when suspicions surfaced that people he knew in the Israeli Arab town of Arara may have helped him into hiding. This dealt a serious blow to the working assumption that had prevailed among security forces until now, that only a very small number of Israeli Arabs choose terrorism, and they do not have the support of their peers. In Arara, a major question mark was placed on this assumption.
Another basic assumption, perhaps the most significant one, that was undermined concerns the identities of Hamas and Islamic State as rival groups. Few have given it much thought, but two members of Hamas’ east Jerusalem branch were found to be Islamic State members. Hazem Ziad Amran Sandouqa, from Jerusalem’s Old City, and Fahdi Daoud Muhammad Abu Qaian, originally from the southern village of Hura, were arrested for allegedly plotting to carry out several terrorist attacks, among them a plan to assassinate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. They were both active in Salafist organizations and are both sworn supporters of Islamic State. Sandouqa was active in a local Salafist group in east Jerusalem, while Abu Qaian operated in Hura and had agreed to smuggle an explosive vest or car bomb into Israeli territory.
Hura is a Bedouin village in the Negev that made a name for itself in a similar incident about six months ago, when a group of teachers who were Islamic State supporters taught the terrorist group’s ideologies to their students and acquaintances. One of them, a gym teacher, even explained — according to student testimony — that Islamic State-style beheadings are legitimate.
The murderous tithe
This organizational and ideological fog also surrounds the mystery of Muhand al-Okabi’s identity, after he carried out a shooting attack at Beersheba’s central bus station this past October. Okabi is also from Hura. It is still not known whether he subscribed to Hamas or Islamic State ideology — perhaps both.
The fact that the Palestinian Authority is accepting anyone who murdered Jews anywhere in Israel as a “martyr” is no longer surprising. Still, the first signs of blurred lines between Hamas and Islamic State supporters are surprising. The Hamas leadership still takes pains to distinguish itself from Islamic State, and it fights the Salafist organizations in Gaza that occasionally try to shoot rockets at Israel. But sometimes Hamas forces in the field do not uphold this distinction, and then conflict emerges between the command echelon and those in the field.
Take, for example, the decision made by Hamas operative Ahmad Jamal Moussa Azzam from Qalqilya to recruit an Islamic State operative into his east Jerusalem cell. When Azzam reported to his handler in Gaza, “Abu Omar,” that he had recruited Abu Qaian, “Abu Omar” said he was not interested in involving Islamic State members and he commanded Azzam to cut contact with Abu Qaian.
Despite “Abu Omar’s” efforts, similar things also happen at the field level, and even at the command level, within Hamas in Gaza. In recent months, collaboration between Hamas and Islamic State in Gaza was observed for the first time. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon revealed this during a meeting in Rome with Italian Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti. He told her about cooperation between members of Hamas in Gaza and Islamic State in the Sinai. Ya’alon explained that while Hamas is still fighting Islamic State emissaries within the Gaza Strip, it is cooperating with them in the Sinai in an effort to attack the Egyptians.
Ya’alon’s remarks were bolstered when Shadi al-Mani’i, a key Islamic State operative in the Sinai Peninsula, arrived in Gaza last month. There, Mani’i took part in talks about expanding cooperation between the two terrorist groups. Security officials say that the talks centered on plans that would see Islamic State helping Hamas smuggle weapons into Gaza via tunnels, and Hamas giving a portion of those weapons to Islamic State — a sort of tithe, if you will.
This cooperation was also likely behind Hamas’s willingness to free some 20 Islamic State supporters from prison in recent weeks and to allow injured Islamic State fighters into the Gaza Strip to receive medical treatment. This apparently allows Hamas to gain some more control over what happens within Gaza and to rein in Salafist groups in Gaza in the meantime.
Hamas is also busy building new terror tunnels into Israel. Recently, since salary funds have dwindled, Hamas is instead offering plots of land from the former Gush Katif settlement bloc, which Israel evacuated and ceded to Gaza in 2005. Israel is not excited about this cooperation, to say the least, and it has warned that the situation is as dangerous as accepting a ride on a tiger’s back. According to some in Jerusalem, this sense of control over the situation is nothing more than an illusion.
The Hamas leadership, which is trying to make a distinction between what happens inside Gaza and what happens outside it, is not only relevant on the Sinai front, but also in Judea and Samaria. Hamas is doing nearly everything it can to keep things calm in the south. It is not allowing its operatives or Salafist groups in Gaza to take action against Israel.
At the same time, Hamas is making a serious effort to try to change the character of the current terrorist campaign being waged outside Gaza, and to turn it into an organized armed resistance. The terrorist group is no longer satisfied, it appears, with the popular, individual and spontaneous nature of the ongoing stabbing, stone-throwing and ramming intifada in Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem and throughout Israel. Hamas is trying to integrate suicide bombings and shooting attacks into the campaign.
This is nothing new. This is a repeat of its brinkmanship policy, an effort to combine escalation in Judea and Samaria and calm in the Gaza Strip. After the kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in the summer of 2014, Hamas lost control of events, and the conflict slid southward before Hamas had planned for it.
Now, Hamas is once again walking a fine line. In the meantime, Israel is succeeding at thwarting the majority of Hamas efforts in the West Bank. The Shin Bet has broken terror cell after terror cell. Had the groups’ plans come to fruition, our reality would look more as it did in 2000-2004, during the Second Intifada.
The growing list of early detections and attacks thwarted by the Shin Bet security agency — both those that we know about and those that we don’t — is very impressive. The most recent one brought us back to the brutal 2014 kidnapping and murder attack of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-ad Shaer and Naftali Frenkel, as Mohammed Ali Qawasmeh — the brother of Husam Qawasmeh, who orchestrated the triple abduction and murder — was found to be leading a terrorist cell. Two of three other Hamas operatives in the cell belong to the Hashlamoun clan, a member of which murdered Dahlia Lemkus in a 2014 ramming attack in Tekoa. The cell was planning a shooting attack on Route 35, and the Shin Bet found that the operatives were in the final stages of preparation prior to carrying it out.
Another terrorist cell uncovered recently was led by Ziad Abu Hadwan, a resident of Jerusalem’s Old City. Abu Hadwan was released from prison this past October after serving time for participating in violent activities on the Temple Mount. His partner in leading the group was Maher Qawasmeh, who served two years in prison for planning Hamas terrorist activities. They were planning to kidnap and murder an Israeli and to hide his body in a remote cave.
The largest Hamas cell discovered recently contained two Islamic State operatives. The network included some 25 members, most of them students attending the Al-Quds University campus in Abu Dis. The network was headed by Ahmed Jamal Moussa Azzam, who is from Qalqilya. The network planned attacks with another Hamas cell from Bethlehem, including suicide, abduction, stabbing and explosive attacks. They also planned to plant an explosive under the podium at the Jerusalem Arena in the aforementioned plot to assassinate Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Hamas’ efforts to incite its followers in Judea and Samaria to carry out shooting and suicide bombing attacks are very much public. Senior Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar called on supporters to “militarize” the current intifada. Moussa Abu Marzouk, another Hamas official, also clarified that Hamas is working to expand the intifada and to turn it into “an armed resistance.” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh declared this week that his organization will settle for nothing less than “Palestine, from the river to the sea,” and he warned that the Al-Quds Intifada “has not yet reached its full potential.”
Will evil come from the south?
And indeed, the principal concern now is of a significant rise in Hamas, Islamic State and Hezbollah recruitment among Israeli Arabs. From Hamas’ point of view, Israeli Arabs have the added benefit of Hebrew language skills, in-depth familiarity with the territory and greater access and freedom of movement — all of which is granted to them as citizens or residents of Israel. In 2014, there were investigations into nine cases of Israeli Arabs suspected of identifying with Islamic State (most of them had traveled to Turkey and from there to Syria, and then back to Israel, where they were arrested). In 2015, there were 15 such cases.
Hamas is making greater efforts among Israeli Arabs in general, and east Jerusalem residents in particular. The terror network of students from the university in Abu Dis is one example of this. The difficult images last week from the Shuafat refugee camp — territory that Israel has de facto ceded — illustrated the far-reaching grasp Hamas has on east Jerusalem.
In the Shuafat refugee camp, weapons, drugs and trash line the streets, as do construction violations and loitering teenagers. Jordan established the camp in the early 1960s. Its original residents were Palestinian refugees who had fled western Jerusalem in 1948 and settled among the ruins of the destroyed Jewish quarter in the Old City. Jordan moved them from the Old City to Shuafat. Israel annexed the camp to Jerusalem, but continued to neglect it.
Last week, after dozens of terrorists were removed from within it, images were released of the refugee camp that brought to mind Gaza “at its best.” Reporter Zvi Yehezkeli first revealed them on Channel 10. They showed the funeral of a terrorist, where thousands of people crowded the alleys of the camp as the funeral procession passed. The crowds were waving green Hamas flags and swearing that they would redeem the martyr in spirit and in blood. Gunshots were heard in the background. Dozens of people with their faces covered were seen clutching guns and swords. The gunfire could be heard in the nearby neighborhoods of Pisgat Ze’ev, Neve Yaakov and French Hill. With this kind of environment, and when Israeli security forces avoid entering the camp and ridding it of weapons, it’s no wonder that Hamas manages to recruit so many terrorists from there.
Even the PA, which rushed to embrace Milhem this week, has concerns. Its security service is helping Israel thwart attacks. Two weeks ago, the PA arrested more than 10 Salafist operatives in Bethlehem, fearing that they had plans to carry out an Islamic State-inspired attack against the Christians who had gathered in the town for Christmas.
Israel has put additional emphasis on intelligence gathering within the Bedouin community after Islamic State operatives were found among it.
Rare as they may be, the meetings and cooperation efforts between Hamas and Islamic State operatives are likely to mark the beginning of a new reality, in which the borders between the two terrorist groups will be blurred and unfamiliar collaboration will continue in accordance with ad hoc interests.