Reports in Israeli media claim that a senior Hamas officer has crossed the Gaza border and defected to Israel, bringing with him deep knowledge of Hamas’ underground tunnel network.
Haaretz says that Bassam Mahmoud Baraka, from Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip, told his family that he was going to run some errands and has not been seen since. He reportedly headed for the border in possession of information about the tunnels and gave himself up to Israeli soldiers. Channel Two did not name the senior figure, but said that he is an elite officer in Hamas’ military wing.
Earlier this month, Israel’s Shin Bet security agency said that a 17-year-old Hamas member had been seized after crossing the border and had revealed details of the tunnel network, which apparently spans practically the entirety of the Gaza Strip. Several Hamas operatives have been killed this year while digging tunnels in Gaza, and two tunnels were uncovered reaching into Israeli territory during the past two months.
It has fuelled Israeli fears that Hamas is successfully rebuilding the sophisticated underground network which was a major feature of Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014. Not only did the tunnels enable Hamas leaders and operatives to evade capture, but they were a launching pad for deadly attacks on Israelis. Eleven Israeli soldiers died during the 2014 conflict in Israeli territory, having been ambushed by gunmen emerging from the tunnels, which also threatened civilians in Israel’s Gaza border communities. Since taking office earlier this year, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot has said that detecting the Gaza tunnels is a priority.
Meanwhile, London-based Arabic newspaper Rai Al-youm says that Hamas’ political chief and most senior figure, Khaled Mashaal, will not stand for re-election in an internal vote later this year. He will apparently retire, with tensions continuing between Hamas’ political and military wings. The report says that possible successors include Mashaal’s number two Abu Marzouk and Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip, Ismael Haniyeh.