Since seizing power in a 2007 violent coup, Hamas has developed a range of cynical ways to exploit civilians in the Gaza Strip to build up its military wing and promote lethal terrorist activities.
Within Gaza, around its borders, and away from it, Hamas's military wing sends out tentacles disguised in civilian camouflage.
These tactics including importing equipment for its military build-up program, embedding rocket launchers in civilian neighborhoods, using human shields to protect its armed operatives, digging attack tunnels into Israel, and exploiting civilian infrastructure needs for terrorist purposes. Hamas regularly exploits humanitarian efforts, designed to save Gazan lives, in order to enable terrorist atrocities designed to kill Israelis.
Hamas even exploits Gaza's civilian mail service.
Israeli border control officers from the Defense Ministry recently intercepted 11 packages containing dual-use equipment – items that can be used for both civilian purposes and terrorist activities. Security officers are especially vigilant to watch out for such items, which Hamas orders online and imports through the mail.
At the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel, border control officers announced the seizure of gun scopes, diving flashlights (equipment likely destined for Hamas's naval commando cell) and electronic equipment.
Officers from the Gaza Civil Liaison Administration, a department in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that provides daily assistance to Gazan civilians, also found digital microscopes, biometric equipment, cell phones designed for rugged field conditions, and fiberoptic cables. All of this equipment, security officials say, was destined to help Hamas's military wing strengthen itself and prepare future attacks on Israelis.
Hamas's attempts to flood Gaza with dual use equipment is constant. In recent years, security officials that scan packages report finding chemicals that fuel rockets, generators for tunnel digging, and drones. "Hamas is abusing Gaza's postal service to build-up its military power," a senior Israeli security official stated in May during a briefing for journalists.
Drilling and digging equipment, assault rifle magazines, binoculars, and military uniforms are just some of the things concealed in such packages. The attempt to import dual use items came after Hamas repeatedly tried and failed to use the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel for trucks to sneak in weapons and combat equipment. The trucks carry vital goods for Gaza's population, and hundreds of them pass through Kerem Shalom every day, bringing food, medicines, medical equipment, construction material, and other critical supplies. This makes Kerem Shalom a lifeline for Gaza's civilians. But Hamas had no issue with risking this artery by repeatedly trying to use it to smuggle war materials in on board the trucks. Israeli border checks have prevented these attempts for years.
Hamas responded to this failure by turning to the Erez Crossing with Egypt instead, where mail and people move back and forth. It began trying to smuggle combat equipment in pieces, using small mail packages to do so.
As one example, inspectors in Israel last year found a propeller in one box and a motor in another. Together they form the components for Hamas to build drones that it can later use to drop grenades over southern Israeli towns.
Even a package containing slippers from Turkey turned out to be something very different. Border inspectors found enough military boots hidden inside for an entire Hamas battalion.
Gaza border disturbances
This continual smuggling effort reflects a larger paradox for Hamas. It remains a terrorist entity, tirelessly organizing terrorist cells in the West Bank, and turning Gaza into a heavily armed Islamist base, filled with rockets and Hamas battalions.
Yet since 2007, Hamas has also been a government, becoming the first Muslim Brotherhood branch to gain sovereignty over a territory.
The result is that Hamas still tries to plot bomb attacks on Israeli buses and shooting attacks on civilians, and at the same time, manage an economy with an unemployment rate that surpasses 40 percent.
If Gaza's economy collapses, Hamas's regime will be in jeopardy. One route Hamas has to rescue itself from this situation is to force an outside entity to come in and take responsibility for Gaza's economic needs, so that Hamas can focus on its military-terrorist project.
To achieve this goal, for the past year, Hamas has been organizing weekly violent disturbances on the Gaza-Israel border, providing another example of how it uses civilians to promote its radical goals.
The "popular protests" that Hamas organizes on the border are designed to pressure Israel, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority, and the international community to allow major funds to pour into Gaza. This would take the pressure off the Hamas regime, allowing it to focus on manufacturing rockets, mortar shells, tunnels, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and bomb boats.
While most of Gaza's 1.8 million civilians keep away from the border, unwilling to heed Hamas's calls to endanger themselves, Hamas still buses many thousands of rioters to the border, interspersing armed operatives among them, turning them into human shields.
The Meir Amit Terrorism Information and Intelligence Center published an analysis Jan. 21 of the casualty rate from the so-called "return marches." It found that over the 42 weeks, 150 out of the 187 Palestinians killed in these events were "affiliated with Hamas or other terrorist organizations," and that 45 fatalities were members of the Hamas military wing.
Hamas uses these events to threaten Israel's borders with large crowds, which conceal among them bomb-planting cells, as well as operatives armed with grenades, guns, and axes.
This is a prominent example of how Hamas uses civilian shields to promote its terrorist activities. The modus operandi repeats itself every Friday during the disturbances, which Hamas attempts to present as civilians who are tired of their situation, rather than border attacks launched by a terrorist entity that place many civilians in danger.
Operatives armed with fence cutters launch regular attempts to burst through the border and threaten Israeli communities located nearby.
Such tactics, which place Palestinian minors in grave danger, have attracted the recent condemnation of the Palestinian Authority. Columnists in Palestinian Authority daily newspapers accuse Hamas of using the deadly disturbances as "a bargaining chip for improving [their positions] in the path towards calm with Israel, in order to serve the Muslim Brotherhood emirate project [in Gaza]."
Civilian structures as weapons storage facilities
Within the Gaza Strip, Hamas's military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, hides its most valuable military assets in the heart of civilian areas. Civilian apartments and basements in residential buildings double as weapons storage facilities and command and control centers. Medical clinic rooftops additionally serve as rocket launch sites and weapons bunkers lie in the middle of heavily populated urban areas.
During the 2014 conflict with Israel, Hamas fired rockets on Israeli cities from Gazan schools, hospitals, and medical clinics in a bid to restrain Israel's return fire, thereby taking advantage of Israel's efforts to limit harm to Palestinian noncombatants.
Gaza casualty counts come despite Israeli efforts to limit them, including direct warnings for people to clear out of areas before they are targeted.
The IDF acted "within the parameters of the Law of Armed Conflict" and "in some respects exceeded the highest standards we set for our own nations' militaries" in its effort to avoid harm to noncombatants," said a report by the High Level Military Group (HLMG), comprised of 11 former NATO military leaders and officials. It examined Israel's 2014 conflict with Hamas. The report added that "the entire military machinery of Hamas was embedded in civilian locations, private homes and a plethora of sensitive sites such as medical facilities, mosques and schools."
Still, Hamas uses unintended civilian deaths to score media points against Israel in the court of public opinion.
While Israeli security measures are neutralizing Hamas's cross-border tunnel network, inside Gaza itself, a complex network of tunnels continues to grow, for the movement of armed operatives and weapons.
Israel describes this as part of an "established strategy" of digging combat tunnel deep in civilian areas, and using homes, schools, mosques, and hospitals as shields.
The IDF has said that Hamas deliberately places such terror sites near and within civilian buildings hoping an IDF strike will result in Gazan deaths that can damage Israeli legitimacy. "In the process, they sacrifice the citizens they claim to defend," the IDF said.
These actions led the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to condemn Hamas after a terror tunnel was found running near two UN schools.
Exploiting humanitarian traffic
Hamas frequently tries to exploit Israel's practice of allowing humanitarian crossings in from Gaza to send cash and explosive materials to its West Bank terror cells.
For example, when the Palestinian Authority stopped medical equipment supplies to Gaza, as part of its pressure tactics against Hamas last May, and reduced the number of medical referrals for Gazans that allow them treatment in West Bank hospitals, Israel increased the number of permits allowing Gazans to visit Israeli hospitals.
Israel did this despite having multiple intelligence warnings of Hamas intentions to take advantage of the measure.
A 65-year-old Gazan woman, received a permit last April to receive cancer treatment in an Israeli hospital. The woman was stopped at the Erez border crossing with enough explosives to blow up four buses.
Gazan civilians who wish to cross into Israel must first pass a Hamas checkpoint, where they may be approached with an offer they cannot refuse to deliver cash or explosives over the border.
Israel's defense establishment regularly intercepts such efforts, including attempts to hide cash in shoes. Hamas used an elderly Gazan woman who received an Israeli permit to cross the border for medical treatment in November to pass along secret instructions to a Hamas operative in the West Bank.
Civilian infrastructure in the service of terrorism
Hamas regularly siphons off infrastructure materials Israel transfers into Gaza for material to build its arsenal.
Examples include the theft of pipes sent to Gaza to build waste plants and water filtering sites, which Hamas uses to build rockets that are later fired at Israeli cities.
Generators end up in underground terror tunnels heading towards Israeli cities.
According to Israeli security sources, Hamas has even taken some medical oxygen tanks that Israel sends into Gaza for hospitals and uses them to help tunnel diggers breathe as they work 30 meters (around 100 feet) underground. Israeli warnings about such actions risking future humanitarian transfers have had no visible effect on Hamas's pattern of conduct.
Prior to Israel installing a monitoring mechanism, Hamas siphoned off cement entering Gaza for civilian construction and used it to dig tunnels.
Last May, Hamas instigated rioters to torch Gaza's only fuel pipeline on the Palestinian side of Kerem Shalom. The resulting 10 million shekels of damage, and weeks of disruption of regular fuel supplies, reflects Hamas's casual willingness to hold the needs of its own people ransom.
A conveyer that delivers agricultural feed and gravel for construction at the site was also destroyed by rioters following Hamas's instructions.
Israel's national electric corporation supplies Gaza with 125 megawatts per day (paid for by the Palestinian Authority), which is delivered over 10 power lines. Israel also sends trucks of natural gas into Gaza, which help power the Strip's sole power plant. Yet Hamas has regularly decreased the electricity supply to civilians while keeping the electricity running in its combat tunnels, rocket production facilities, and border demonstration tents.
Decreasing the power is another means that Hamas has used to pressure its own people, in a reckless bid to export pressure in the direction of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the international community.
Exploiting Gaza's fishermen
In a measure to assist the Gazan economy, Israel has repeatedly sought to expand the zone that fishermen can work in off the Strip's Mediterranean coastline. Expanding the fishing zone increases the number of people working in Gaza's fishing sector.
Yet Hamas often exploits this area, too. Israel Navy officials report intercepting multiple attempts by Hamas to use fishing vessels to smuggle rocket manufacturing materials from Sinai via the Mediterranean Sea.
Hamas has also ordered civilian fishing boats to sail up to the maritime border to initiate friction with Israel. This action caused Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rokon, the IDF's coordinator of government activities in the territories, to warn Gaza's fishermen that provocations won't be ignored even though "the Hamas terror organization is exploiting the fishermen of Gaza who are simply working to make a living, and is forcing them to participate in the provocations and disturbances of the peace taking place in the maritime area."
Hamas banned Gaza's fishermen from going out to sea last May, as part of the same ransom-style tactics to increase the pressure on the long-suffering Gazan people. Hamas then uses this suffering to call out to the world to come and save Gaza by investing money in it, thereby freeing up Hamas's own funds for the military wing.
The list of Hamas's use of civilian needs to promote violent and radical objectives goes on. In one of the latest examples, the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center noted this week that Hamas routinely disguises its military wing operatives as journalists to "increase their survivability" and to take advantage of protection afforded by Israel to members of the press.
Yet Hamas is likely aware that it is walking on a tightrope. Its greatest fear appears to be a rebellion by Gazans against its rule, meaning that Hamas tries to calculate its moves to avoid reaching a 'red line' situation.
So long as it is in charge of Gaza, however, Hamas will continue exploiting every avenue that it can to misuse civilian needs for its radical agenda.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the Israel correspondent for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.