Palestinian police officers loyal to Hamas march during a graduation ceremony in Gaza City, April 29, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa.
Some individuals serve as terrorist entrepreneurs or enablers, working with multiple militant organizations of different backgrounds. Mohammed al-Zawari, an engineer who contributed to drone arsenals for both Hamas and Hezbollah, was a notable example of a cross-group terrorist enabler until 2016, when Israel allegedly killed him in Tunisia.
On Wednesday, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) announced the detention of another terrorist facilitator: Mahmoud Baker, a senior arms smuggler who has worked with various Palestinian militant organizations in the Gaza Strip.
With help from Israel’s domestic and military intelligence services, the Israeli Navy detained Baker and another unidentified smuggler in Gaza several weeks ago in what the IDF called a “significant operational achievement.” Baker was indicted in an Israeli court earlier this month.
Information gleaned during the investigation helped Israel’s security forces foil another attempt to smuggle arms from the Sinai Peninsula to Hamas’ naval commando unit. This development is one among many Israeli seizures of weapons bound for Gaza via sea and land-based routes from the Sinai.
Shortly after the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, the terrorist group started developing a professional naval commando unit focused on infiltrating Israel to carry out attacks and kidnappings. Hamas’s leadership recognized that naval commandos could be an attractive option to penetrate Israeli territory after Israel successfully targeted significant portions of Hamas’ underground tunnel network.
Earlier this year, Israeli border officers seized sophisticated weapons, including gun scopes and diving flashlights, which were likely destined for Hamas’ naval commandos.
Egypt’s parallel campaign against tunnel infrastructure along the Sinai-Gaza border has likely increased pressure on Hamas to rely more on sea-based smuggling, similar to the details in Wednesday’s announcement.
However, despite Israeli successes, Hamas’ naval capabilities have grown considerably over the years to include military-grade diving equipment and dozens of elite fighters, some of whom were likely trained in Iran. Hamas naval operatives also actively prepare for attacks against Israel using underwater tunnels and explosive vessels.
Amid Gaza’s growing financial crisis, Israel’s latest weapons seizure shows that Hamas continues to divert resources and attention away from civilian reconstruction programs and towards the development of deadly terrorist capabilities.
While smuggler Mahmoud Baker’s primary affiliation remains unclear, Palestinian terrorist organizations have relied primarily on Iran and the Islamic State’s Affiliate in Sinai (Wilayat Sinai) to facilitate weapons transfers from Sinai.
Wilayat Sinai continues to maintains a major presence in the northeastern region of the peninsula, along the border with Gaza. It would not be surprising if Baker maintained close ties to both Palestinian and Sinai-based terrorists given the region’s complex history.
For years, Hamas and Wilayat Sinai engaged in tactical forms of cooperation including two-way cross-border weapons smuggling. Gaza even served as a safe haven for Wilayat Sinai leaders evading Egyptian counter-terrorism operations. However, political-level tensions between both organizations persisted. In 2017, Palestinian sources speaking with the Times of Israel revealed that dozens of Hamas operatives had defected to Wilayat Sinai, including highly trained terrorists and naval commandos. A year later, relations between both terrorist organizations deteriorated considerably as Wilayat Sinai declared war on Hamas.
Despite that tension, terrorist operatives appear to maintain close ties on both sides of the Sinai-Gaza border. With Egypt’s approval, Israel has allegedly conducted numerous airstrikes against Wilayat Sinai targets in recent years, including some weapons transfers to Gaza-based terrorist groups.
Israel has also reportedly waged a large-scale intelligence-led operation in Sinai to inhibit the flow of weapons and money to Palestinian terrorist groups. From November 2018-May 2019, Israel targeted three trucks in the Sinai, including one carrying Iranian missiles meant for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, according to Palestinian sources speaking with i24 News.
Israel’s latest interception of a Gaza-bound arms shipment highlights the country’s multi-faceted approach to combating weapons smuggling to Palestinian terrorist groups. Israel relies on various offensive measures, including a combination of air strikes and naval operations. But Israel is also increasingly adopting strategies to disrupt terrorist activities, including the construction of an underwater barrier to deter Palestinian naval operatives from infiltrating Israel.
Like the recent operation targeting Mahmoud Baker, Israeli counter-terrorism measures, irrespective of the form they take, depend heavily on high levels of readiness and strong intelligence capabilities to foil persistent terrorist plots and activities. But Hamas is not letting up in its desire to strike — and destroy — Israel.
Steven Emerson is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing, and operations. He serves as the Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a non-profit organization that serves as one of the world’s largest storehouses of archival data and intelligence on Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorist groups.