Israeli attempts to gather intelligence and recruit informants in Gaza is a constant challenge for Hamas and vulnerable Palestinians.
Since it took control of Gaza in 2007, one of the priorities of the defacto Hamas-run government, especially for internal security, is to combat the phenomenon of collaboration. Informants and spies recruited by Israel usually pass sensitive information to Israeli intelligence about the activities of Palestinian resistance fighters.
Israelis use a number of tools at their disposal including blackmail and extortion, anything that can address Palestinians’ genuine needs. The need to travel via Israeli checkpoints for different reasons including seeking advanced medical attention at hospitals in the West Bank or Israel is just one of the ways a Palestinian could fall victim to this process.
Poverty as a result of the hardships under Israel’s siege makes Palestinians easy prey for extortion. Israeli intelligence contacts the most vulnerable over phones or social media in a bid to find potential informants. Sometimes, threats are issued to the targeted “prey” if they refuse to collaborate and become a spy.
Numerous amnesty campaigns have been launched in recent years, with rehabilitation programs introduced to help informants after they turn themselves in and take advantage of the amnesty offer.
The phenomenon of collaboration is not high according to officials from the Gaza interior ministry. However, many arrests have been made, and others have turned themselves in. There is no doubt that the informants pose a genuine danger to the unity of the Palestinian people and the resistance against Israel - who has sealed off the narrow coastal enclave by land, sea, and air.
Some of the suspected collaborators have been accused of aiding Israel during its attacks on Gaza. Technology and advanced espionage equipment are never enough, and human intelligence from the ground is crucial to assisting and carrying out missions.
Gaza’s interior ministry runs a website called “Al-Majd Al-Amny” to raise awareness about espionage and offers advice on how to be vigilant in handling sensitive information when reporting or sharing breaking news on social media - or in case one is approached by Israeli intelligence with offers of money in return for information.
“The enemy is trying constantly to recruit new collaborators in order to penetrate our internal front. But our security officers are working around the clock to counter the Zionist espionage measures. We are conducting awareness campaigns to protect our security and internal front. We still offer amnesty to those who turn themselves in, and we keep their identities confidential,” a spokesman from the Gaza interior ministry told the press.
In the past, some Palestinian human rights organisations expressed their concerns about violations of human rights arguing that some of the alleged informants do not enjoy fundamental rights while in custody and during interrogations.
Gaza’s interior ministry stress that collaborators are treated according to Palestinian law. They are referred to military courts, have access to lawyers, and they can appeal. Sometimes death sentences are reconsidered and reduced, given that any death sentence has to be ratified by the president of the Palestinian Authority. But that authority is not recognised by Hamas in light of the prolonged political and geographical split within Palestinian leadership.
In some cases, spies have been caught red-handed with high-tech equipment, but according to human rights groups, a number of alleged spies have been convicted on flimsy evidence.
The battle within
The most ambitious Israeli espionage operation in Gaza was foiled in November last year when Hamas fighters uncovered a plot by Israeli Special Forces who infiltrated the eastern part of KhanYounis. The mission was to carry out assassinations and capture prominent Palestinian military commanders as well as finding a kidnapped Israeli soldier in Gaza, allegedly being held captive by Hamas since the 2014 war on Gaza.
A few weeks after the botched operation which, led to the killing of an Israeli intelligence commander and seven Hamas fighters, new information had been revealed about the identity of the special agents who wore civilian clothing driving in a civilian vehicle, 'disguised' as Palestinians. The foiled operation took the conflict between the two sides to a new level, and the political fallout in Israel shook Netanyahu's cabinet.
Recordings about the movement of the Israeli agents while in Gaza, before they were discovered, were published by Hamas’ armed wing, known as the “Al-Qassam Brigades”. The investigation also revealed that the elite unite comprising of 15 members tried to bug Hamas’s communication network and install listening equipment.
The bugging technique was carried out previously in another separate operation by either spies or Israeli commandos which, at the time, led to the killing of six Hamas operatives after trying to defuse a booby-trapped device planted in a communication network hub in Al-Zawaida in central Gaza last May.
Video scenes of confessions by five local Palestinian informants, out of 45, who were captured by Hamas soon after the botched KhanYounis operation, were also made available to the public.
The exposed special intelligence agents tried to disguise themselves in Gaza by entering as a medical team with ID cards of Gaza residents. Abu Obida, the spokesperson of Hamas’ armed wing, announced a million dollar reward to anyone who reveals more information about the activities of Israeli intelligence.
Previously, Hamas was able to solve the puzzle behind the assassination of Mazen Fuqaha, a commander killed in front of his home on 24th March 2017. Three local informants were convicted and executed two months after the assassination.
The families of suspected and convicted informants are in many ways victims and are left emotionally scarred as they don’t want to be associated with the stigma of having a family member seen or accused of being a spy for the Israelis.
As the anti-espionage campaign aims to cleanse Israel’s alleged spies through giving them the chance to turn themselves in or face arrest, and a possible death sentence handed down in a military court, the hidden war between Israel and Hamas continues behind the scenes even in times of peace in the blockaded Gaza Strip.
The hidden intelligence duel has become a battle between the two sides. Hamas has a massive disadvantage in this war of the minds because of their inferior technology and overall capability -but that hasn't stopped Hamas from taking the fight to the informants and the Israelis.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org