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Firefight after Israeli special forces’ cover was blown ‘nearly triggered new Gaza war’

Hamas has tightened security in enclave as Israeli army declined to comment about details of disastrous undercover operation which nearly sparked another war

Bel Trew
Saturday 01 December 2018 18:01 GMT
Dozens of rockets being fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians

Israeli special forces posing as medical aid workers used “detailed but fake” ID cards of real Gaza citizens in their botched intelligence raid in the strip last month, and may have entered through an official crossing, Hamas officials have claimed.

The Gaza citizens whose identities had been “stolen” allegedly hail from across the tiny 25-mile-long enclave but not the area where the Israeli uncover operation was taking place. This was in case they were discovered by local residents, according to several officials within Hamas, the militant group which runs the strip.

Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman, said its security wing detained and questioned all the Palestinians whose identities appeared on ID cards that were discovered in around the wreckage of a vehicle used by the Israeli special forces squad who were 3km into south Gaza’s Khan Younis district when their cover was blown. The cards were “very accurate,” Mr Qassem added: they included the correct full names, ID numbers and details of the residents.

Mr Qassem said that while several people had been arrested, to his knowledge those whose identities had been used were released “as they genuinely knew nothing”.

He said that the Israeli soldiers were posing as aid workers when their car was stopped.

“They had detailed but fake ID cards of Gaza residents which were found [in the wreckage]. Those who the Israelis were posing as were detained but they had no idea their names had been used,” he told The Independent from Gaza City.

“[The Israeli unit] were posing as NGO workers, there were women in the car as well. They used this to justify why they were stealing into Gaza and had a story prepared should they be questioned,” he added.

However, the Hamas official denied recent reports in Israeli news outlet Walla and the Israeli Television News Company that the Israeli squad had successfully set up and were operating a non-governmental organisation within Gaza.

He would not go into details about what was believed to be the purpose of the Israeli raid in Gaza. The Israeli army declined to comment about any of the allegations.

However, another Hamas official, who asked to remain anonymous as he is not permitted to speak to the media, said the Israeli forces were in Gaza to replace listening and surveillance devices that had been laid before.

At least eight people, including an Israeli lieutenant-colonel and a local Hamas brigade commander, were killed on 11 November when Hamas operatives confronted a team of undercover Israeli male and female operatives in the southern Gaza district of Khan Younis.

A firefight ensued, and Israeli warplanes and helicopters launched a wave of air strikes on the area apparently to cover their soldiers as they fled back to Israel. Gaza’s fighters hit back with the heaviest bombardment of rocket fire since the last conflict in 2014, prompting fresh airstrikes. Both sides were on the brink of another war, and a further eight people were killed until Egypt brokered a fresh ceasefire which remains in place.

The Israeli army declined to comment about any of the latest allegations when contacted by The Independent. Earlier in the week, the army announced it was opening two separate investigations into the botched raid. A military gag on details of the probe is in place.

At the time of the raid, the army said a special force was carrying out “a lengthy operation and encountered a very complex reality” without giving details. The military added that these kinds of operations were carried out “regularly” and were essential to the security of the country.

But many now fear that foreign aid workers will be at risk, and their work in Gaza curtailed if it is proven that the Israeli special forces did, in fact, impersonate NGO workers.

Security has certainly been tightened with the coastal enclave.

The Independent noticed additional checkpoints throughout the territory, as well as more stringent questioning at the border upon entry.

Local officials did not grant The Independent permission to visit the site of the botched raid and warned the outlet against doing so without permits, saying the area was under investigation.

Mr Qassem said, however, that the Gaza authorities were “dedicated” to ensuring the entry and freedom of movement of foreign aid workers and journalists into the enclave as they were needed amid a worsening humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by an 11-year-old Israeli-imposed siege on the strip.

“We are concerned that we want foreigners to keep coming in. They are helping with the humanitarian situation. We are dedicated to facilitating people coming in and out of Gaza. Any tightened security measures – which are applied to everyone – will be temporary,” he added.

One Hamas official, who asked to speak anonymously, offered further details about the ongoing Palestinian investigation into the incident. He claimed the Israeli team initially told the fighters at the checkpoint they were medical workers who worked on delivering patients back to their houses after treatment.

He added there was a “high possibility” the team legally entered Gaza through an official crossing point such as Erez.

The official said: “They told the fighters at the checkpoint that they were delivering patients back from clinics to their homes and had a wheelchair in the back of the van. They presented their ID cars but the [fighters] manning the checkpoint were suspicious as their accents and voices did not match the areas where they said they were from.”

They told the fighters at the checkpoint that they we are delivering patients back from clinics to their homes and had a wheelchair in the back of the van

Hamas official

The official claimed that several senior officers were summoned until Noureddin Baraka, a local Hamas commander, was called in. He decided to take the undercover Israeli team in for further questioning at a nearby military camp which led the Israeli soldiers to open fire, killing Baraka and his deputy.

“There is a high possibility the Israeli team initially entered via an official entry point [with Israel] like Erez, but this is not confirmed,” the Hamas source added.

He echoed the Hamas spokesman’s denial that the team were operating a functioning NGO within the strip.

Local residents and prominent figures in the area, which is on the main street between the Khan Younis towns of Abasan Kabira and Khuza’a, told The Independent the Israeli soldiers were travelling in a Volkswagen minibus and had a wheelchair in the back of the van which they said they were using to deliver patients.

They claimed Mr Baraka had known one of the specific cases they mentioned and was able to call the family that confirmed the disabled woman in question had in fact recently passed away.

A grocery shop owner in the area, who asked to only be identified as Abu Ahmed for fear of reprisals, said he was first alerted to the incident when the firefight erupted, although at first he believed it be celebratory gunfire for a wedding.

He said the Israeli army escaped through the farmlands belonging to a local Gazan man who is reportedly currently missing.

None of the claims could be independently verified.

For the moment, a tense ceasefire still holds in Gaza. Officials within Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which is listed as a terror group in the UK and has a powerful armed wing within the enclave, said they were “committed” to the truce should the Israelis respect it.

However privately both Hamas and Islamic Jihad admitted they were “not letting their guard down” because they believed further air strikes in Gaza “may be on the cards”.

Many in Israel, including residents under rocket fire near to the Gaza border, have urged Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to continue pounding Hamas targets to reduce its capabilities, fearing a ceasefire at this point would be a loss for Israel and only see more fighting down the line.

Residents of southern Israel protest in Tel Aviv against the ceasefire with Gaza (Reuters) (Photo: Ammar Awad / Reuters)

Mr Netanyahu, who has refrained from ordering further strikes, only just rescued his ruling coalition from the brink of collapse last week when he managed to convince Israel’s powerful education minister Naftali Bennett to stick with the alliance after they fell out over the ceasefire.

The crisis was triggered two weeks ago when defence minister Avigdor Lieberman resigned and abandoned the coalition over the truce with Hamas, leaving Mr Netanyahu with a knife-edge one-seat majority in parliament.

Mr Bennett was expected to follow suit but in a surprise statement said he would stick with the government and coalition if Mr Netanyahu was serious in his intention to “make Israel win again” and continue action against Hamas in Gaza.

Dozens of rockets being fired from Gaza at Israeli civilians

Back in Gaza, officials said they felt there was a “cautious calm” and so the fighters remained “on guard”.

“If the Israelis launch a new attack, the Palestinian [fighters] are ready to deal with this attack,” Walid al-Qottati, a member of Islamic Jihad’s political wing, told The Independent.

“But we do not want a war, as it will only bring suffering to the people,” he added.

A Hamas official agreed.

“We are not lowering our guard yet. We do think the Israelis might do a sudden strike but for the moment, for now, at least things are moving the right direction,” he added.

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