In March, a Palestinian resident of the West Bank appeared before an Israeli military court and was charged with attempting to set up a Hamas terrorism cell, after being recruited for the mission by Hamas in Gaza.
Ahmed Fahida, a 26-year-old attorney from a village near Ramallah, allegedly worked under the instruction of Hamas's military wing in Gaza, the Izzadin Al-Qassam Brigades, following directives he received via Facebook and emails, to set up a terrorism cell that would fire rockets and kidnap and kill a soldier.
This isn't the only case of its kind – a number of similar cases are being processed through military courts. These are signs that the Hamas regime in Gaza is stepping up efforts to create active cells in the Fatah-ruled West Bank.
Hamas's West Bank terrorism infrastructure has not recovered after being devastated by waves of Israeli counter-terror operations launched a decade ago, and the organization's leadership would like to change that.
Fahida's charge sheet provides a glimpse into how this is being done. According to the indictment, Fahida made Facebook contact last year with a Gazan Hamas operative by the name of Ahmed Uda, who proceeded to recruit him, and put him in touch with a third man, nicknamed Abu Ibrahim, also from Gaza.
Ibrahim and Fahida allegedly exchanged several emails, through which Fahida learned how to evade Israeli intelligence, and how to create explosive devices. Later, the charge sheet states, Fahida recruited a second West Bank resident, and the two learned how to create and fire rockets. They also planned to kidnap and murder an Israeli soldier.
The kidnap plot, according to the indictment, involved burying the soldier's body and presenting his personal items in order to deceive Israel that he was still alive, allowing for negotiations for the release of Palestinian security prisoners.
After months of preparations, "the defendant received two messages from Abu Ibrahim, telling him to begin carrying out the terrorist attacks," the charge sheet said.
Several factors are driving Hamas's efforts to step up terrorism launched from the West Bank. Hamas would like to 'cash in' on recent developments that boosted its credibility in the court of Palestinian public opinion at Fatah's expense. These events include Hamas's conflict with Israel last year, and its success in securing the release of 1,200 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli prisons. Additionally, it is unable to directly launch attacks from Gaza now due to its commitment to the truce with Israel.
Ultimately, Hamas's aim is to govern the West Bank in Fatah's place and convert it into an Islamist emirate and a hornet's nest of jihadi activity, just as it is doing in Gaza.
Hamas is able to fund its terrorist infrastructure in Gaza from a combination of sources, including donations from foreign governments, fundraising programs disguised as social assistance charities in the Palestinian territories, the Arab world, and the West, and from taxes levied on Gazan businesses and residents.
Last year, Israeli President Shimon Peres named Turkey as a sponsor of Hamas terrorism, saying that Ankara was sending hundreds of millions of dollars. Qatar in recent months gave Hamas $400 million for public works in Gaza. With no independent oversight, it is impossible to know how much of that cash might be siphoned off to terrorism. Gaza received a total of $1 billion in international aid in 2012, according to defense sources.
Although Iran significantly cut its funding since 2011, to express its displeasure at Hamas's backing of the Syrian uprising against the Assad regime, Iran continues to supply Hamas with rockets.
Since 2007, when Hamas gunmen stormed Fatah positions in the Gaza Strip and seized it in a violent coup, two de facto Palestinian entities have evolved.
In Gaza, Hamas, which is a Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood movement, created an Islamist-jihadi enclave.
It transformed itself from a terror organization to a radical regime. It amassed thousands of rockets, set up a domestic security force, and institutionalized its terrorism and guerilla warfare wing, known as the Izzadin Al-Qassam Brigades.
Meanwhile, the West Bank continues to be ruled by the government and security forces of the secular nationalist Fatah movement, based in Ramallah.
Despite the geographical disconnect between the two territories, Hamas in Gaza has been busy attempting to revitalize its terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. These efforts started after Hamas seized power in Gaza in 2007, but have increased notably over the past year, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Simultaneously, the West Bank has experienced a marked increase in violent disturbances and attacks, some of which have been organized by paramilitary terror outfits affiliated with Fatah. The Israel Security Agency (ISA – the domestic intelligence body) recently released data on violent incidents in November and December, providing a good case study of the upsurge in violence.
There were 111 violent attacks in December, including 69 fire bombings in the West Bank and 30 in east Jerusalem, three hand grenade attacks, and two gun attacks.
There were 166 attacks in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in November, including two stabbings, three via improvised explosive devices, a hand grenade attack, and 156 fire bombings. November and December represent a steep rise in violence compared to October, in which 70 incidents were recorded.
The increased rate of violence has continued in 2013, with 139 incidents in February, 125 violent attacks in March, and 139 in April, according to the Israel Security Agency.
Hamas is watching this increase in West Bank violence, and recognizes an opportunity to once again take a lead role in terrorism.
Its terrorism cells once thrived in West Bank cities such as Jenin, Qalqiliya, and Hebron, until they were extinguished in 2002, when Israel launched Operation Defensive Shield in response to a murderous wave of suicide bombings.
Yet the IDF has noted an increase of recruitment efforts during the past year involving senior Hamas operatives in Gaza reaching out to Palestinians in the West Bank.
These have been accompanied by cash transfers between the two territories (enabling newly recruited terrorists to purchase explosives and firearms), and instructions on training and target selection. As the Fahida case shows, the communications occur via phone calls, emails, and Skype. Hamas asks the squads to report to them when they are ready to act, and provides them with a list of targets.
The IDF and the Israel Security Agency have observed more efforts by Hamas to activate the cells and send them on jihad missions, including shootings, suicide bombings, and even the launching of rockets at Israel from the West Bank.
So far, Israel has been able to effectively block these efforts, thanks to the presence of the IDF in the West Bank, a wealth of Israeli intelligence capabilities there, and raids on Hamas members by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority security forces.
On a regular basis, Israeli soldiers, acting on intelligence, arrest members of budding Hamas cells, seize explosives and terrorist finances, and prevent the murder of Israelis. There have been five known raids on Hamas members so far this year.
One defense source described these continuous actions as "mowing the lawn," meaning that although the counter-terrorism raids are effective, it will only be a matter of time before they have to be launched again.
Many of Hamas's West Bank terror cell efforts are being orchestrated by Gaza's interior minister, Fathi Hammad, a wealthy man who is deeply dedicated to the cause of jihad and the cult of martyrdom.
In 2008, as thousands of Palestinian rockets rained down on southern Israel, Hammad told Hamas's al-Aqsa TV: "For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land… this is why they have formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly, and the mujahedeen (holy fighters), in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine. It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: 'We desire death like you desire life.'"
Troubling Increase in Plots
Hammad, as head of Gaza's domestic security forces, has enforced Hamas's ban on rocket fire on southern Israel, while promoting terrorism in the West Bank.
Recent examples of Israeli raids that prevented the start of a new West Bank-based Hamas terrorism campaign include:
April 7: The Israel Security Agency and Jerusalem District Police arrest a Hamas terrorist cell in east Jerusalem, and charge its members with hurling firebombs at Israeli security forces after Friday prayers at the Temple Mount. The suspects have been charged with conspiracy to attack security forces, manufacturing firebombs, and assaulting police officers with firebombs.
March 13: The Israel Security Agency announces the arrest of a Hamas cell based in the villages of Ras Karkar and Siluad, in the Ramallah Directorate of the West Bank. The cell was ordered by handlers in Gaza to create and fire rockets at Israel, kidnap and murder an Israeli soldier, and prepare suicide bombings. The terrorists received concrete instructions to kidnap a soldier, present his ID and cell phone for negotiations to secure the release Palestinian prisoners, and then kill and bury him at a hideout, according to the ISA. Prior to their arrest, the terrorists sent a message to Gaza saying they were ready to act within days. Security services have linked this cell directly to Hammad, the Hamas interior minister.
March 4: Israeli security forces uncover a Hamas terror cell in Hebron that was planning attacks on Israeli targets. According to the investigation, the suspects plotted to carry out a combined explosives and shooting attack on an IDF position in the Hebron area.
February 4: The IDF arrests 23 Hamas members, including three Hamas legislators, in West Bank cities. These raids came days after the Palestinian Authority arrested several Hamas operatives, including some who had just been released from Israeli prisons. The IDF declined to provide a reason for these specific arrests.
In the background, Hamas is trying to revitalize its civilian component in the West Bank by mobilizing student activists at Palestinian universities, pushing them to get involved in student elections, and attempting to build medical clinics and summer camps that indoctrinate children with its ideology. The most influential university is Bir Zeit, where Hamas students held a high profile march in December (an unusual event), and came in second 2012 student elections.
These actions, too, are being closely monitored by Israel.
One defense source has expressed concern that recent events, such as Hamas's eight-day confrontation with Israel in November, and the Schalit prisoner exchange swap between Israel and Hamas, which saw over 1,200 Palestinian prisoners released in 2011, are enabling Hamas to win over more hearts and minds in the West Bank.
The prisoner exchange has acted as a catalyst for soldier kidnapping attempts. According to the Israel Security Agency, 33 such attempts have been stopped this year alone – a sharp increase from 2012, which saw 24 such attempts.
A report in the Hebrew daily Yedioth Ahronoth cited officers in the IDF who warned that Hamas has stepped up kidnapping attempts to secure further releases of Palestinian security prisoners.
On a broader regional level, the Muslim Brotherhood's elevation to power in Cairo has raised the hopes of its ideological twin in Hamas of gaining regional support.
Although initial hopes for closer cooperation with Egypt appear dashed, Hamas still believes that in the long term, its strategic standing has been significantly boosted by the rise of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Turkey's strong support for Hamas.
Back in the Palestinian territories, Fatah and Hamas continue to compete for support.
The most recent Palestinian poll, published on April 1, showed that PA President Mahmoud Abbas would win 52 percent of the vote in a future election, while Hamas Prime Minister Ismael Haniyeh would win 41 percent. This marks a drop in Hamas's popularity when compared to the results of a poll carried out in January, shortly after the Israel-Hamas conflict. Then, 44 percent of Palestinians supported Haniyeh, and 45 percent supported Abbas. There are several, complex factors behind the changing popularity of Hamas (and Fatah) among Palestinians, but the recent drop in Hamas's standing can be linked to the time that has elapsed since the last conflict with Israel, and the subsequent focus by Palestinians on economic and political issues.
As it pursues reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority – another vehicle to achieve its West Bank take-over objective – Hamas will continue to reach out from Gaza to the West Bank to reestablish its terrorist and civilian-political infrastructure.
Yaakov Lappin is the Jerusalem Post's military and national security affairs correspondent, and author of The Virtual Caliphate (Potomac Books), which proposes that jihadis on the Internet have established a virtual Islamist state.