After three rockets were fired from the Palestinian Gaza enclave toward southern Israel on December 7, 2019, the IDF said in a statement it launched airstrikes targeting military camps and a naval base for Hamas.1
Some 2,600 rockets and mortars have been fired into Israel over the last two years.2 These are not crude Qassam rockets – metal tubes filled with fertilizer explosives built in a garage workshop. The terrorist organizations in Gaza have progressed. Hamas has home-grown rocket production lines in Gaza, as well as a drone workshop to produce Iranian knockoff surveillance, weapons-bearing, and kamikaze unmanned vehicles. They continually test models, firing them into the Mediterranean, to improve accuracy and distance.
In December 2016, Hamas aviation engineer Mohammad al-Zawahri was shot and killed in Tunisia. An aerial drone developer, al-Zawahri was also developing unmanned underwater vehicles (UUV) in Tunis, according to published reports. One of the UUV’s likely missions is attacking the pipelines and offshore gas platforms in the Tamir and Levantine basins of the Mediterranean Sea, 50 and 80 miles off the coast from Haifa, respectively.
Another Palestinian engineer, Fadi al-Batsh, was killed in Malaysia on April 20, 2018. At his funeral in Gaza, he was eulogized as an “engineer commander” for Hamas’ Qassam Brigades and by another speaker as a commander in Islamic Jihad.3
How Does Hamas Get New Weapons?
Hamas made extraordinary efforts to establish its local arms industry, but it still must receive infusions of weapons and technology to sustain its war against Israel. But, specific components such as fiberglass, targeting kits, and surveillance equipment for drones are beyond their ability to manufacture.
Truck convoys bearing weapons believed headed to the Egyptian-Gaza border were blasted in Sudan in 2009 and 2012 by aircraft, presumably from Israel.4 The Hamas-Iranian connection attempted to provide munitions via huge shipments onboard cargo ships like the Klos-C (2014) and the Victoria (2011) and through tunnels that originated on the Egyptian side of the Gaza border. The ships were intercepted, and it is believed most supply tunnels were destroyed by Egypt or Israeli bombs. But there is little doubt that some subterranean smuggling continues.
So, how can a terrorist organization and its Iranian patron supplement its arms supply?
One If by Land and Two If by Sea
Hamas may have found an answer to circumvent the blockade on arms shipments into Gaza. The solution may come from the experiences of international drug cartels, North Korea, and Iran, which have all developed low-profile, “semi-submersible,” and mini-submarine naval vessels for smuggling or insertion of special forces. For several years, flotation devices and barrels filled with weapons were dropped into the waters off the coast of Gaza and then picked up by Gazan operatives or fishermen’s boats. [That may explain why Israel is forever changing the offshore fishing boundaries.]
Hamas takes great pride in its naval commandos; during the 2014 Gaza war, several units were dispatched from Gaza to attack Israeli shores. They were all intercepted on the beach and killed. Today, the naval commando unit is considered by the Palestinians to be one of Hamas’ most elite forces.
Despite the failures of 2014, Palestinian factions in Gaza continue to train and extol their naval commandoes. In 2017, Israel intercepted wetsuits hidden among clothes permitted into Gaza.
The bases of these naval commandos may not attract general attention, but they are very prominent on the target lists of the Israel Defense Forces, including the naval base targeted on December 8, 2019. Why?
Recent news accounts:
May 30, 2018, The IDF spokesman reported, “The strike significantly damaged the operations of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s naval forces in the strip.” “Hamas’ naval force was damaged significantly, and a significant portion of its bases and facilities for producing its specialty weapons were destroyed,” Another account stated that Israel targeted “advanced maritime weaponry” – possibly underwater unmanned vehicles (UUVs).
September 8, 2019: Israeli fighter jets and a drone “struck a number of Hamas military targets, including offensive naval equipment and two military compounds,” the army said.
November 2, 2019: The Israeli army said the strikes targeted “a wide range of Hamas terror targets,” including a naval base, a military compound, and a weapons manufacturing plant.
November 13, 2019: Israeli Navy ships also bombed a training base used by PIJ’s naval commando unit, which was also used to store weapons, the IDF says.
November 16, 2019: Israel struck a Hamas military camp and a naval base.
In June 2018, Israeli planes destroyed a Hamas tunnel on the Gaza coast that stretched several dozen meters and opened under 2-3 meters of water in the Mediterranean. IDF spokesmen explained the tunnel would allow Hamas naval commandos to embark on missions against Israel without being detected. “Hamas has invested a lot of resources in the construction of this tunnel,” a Navy officer said. “We consider it a ‘blue tunnel’—from land to sea.”5
The Tunnel Is Not One-Way
A tunnel could also be an effective route for entering Gaza undetected or for smuggling weaponry or missile components into Gaza.
Consider the following: In 2015, a U.S. Border Patrol arrested a drug smuggler in a wetsuit smuggling cocaine into the United States from Mexico via an underwater tunnel near Calexico, California.6 U.S. authorities had discovered several dry cross-border tunnels, some stretching hundreds of meters, between the two countries, never before an underwater tunnel.
Besides Hamas and PIJ frogmen swimming throught the tunnels to enter and exit Gaza, the tunnels could be the route to smuggle weapons into Gaza just as the subterranean tunnels were used to smuggle arms from Egypt into Gaza. Are the Hamas and PIJ commandos rendezvousing several kilometers offshore with mini-subs, semi-submersibles, or underwater buoyancy-controlled sleds, off-loading materiel, and then steering the rockets, drone parts, and mortars into the tunnels?
The following photographs are of vessels used for smuggling and infiltration sailed by sources with whom Hamas could cooperate or train.
No one should preclude Hamas and PIJ launching naval commando raids against Israeli shores and gas facilities in the Mediterranean. But between such rare operations, the hundreds of frogmen in their employ may be serving as underwater stevedores unloading weapons for Gaza.
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* The writer participated in a multi-year conventional arms reduction program investigating weapons in abandoned and unguarded USSR stockpiles.
1 The New York Times, December 8, 2019