An explosion in southern Lebanon last week destroyed what is believed to have been a Hezbollah weapons depot. This latest in a series of mysterious “accidents” in Hezbollah-controlled precincts proved, as one Israeli official wryly remarked, that those who “sleep with rockets and amass large stockpiles of weapons are in a very unsafe place.” With the Party of God’s overland supply route through Syria choked off by the 22-month-long uprising against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and Israel virtually in total control of the maritime route, Hezbollah’s stockpile is being systematically degraded.
Yet the arsenal of Iran’s other regional proxy force, Hamas, is growing. The Israeli Defense Forces’ campaign against Hamas last month in Gaza targeted Iranian missiles, including the Fajr-5, capable of reaching Tel Aviv and other points north, and destroyed most of them within the first hours of the conflict. But Hamas is already rearming, and it’s not clear that Israel or even Muslim Brotherhood-governed Egypt, which is ostensibly capable of controlling the Sinai tunnel networks through which Hamas receives its arms, can do much about it.
Israel’s next war with Hamas—a further confrontation is almost inevitable—may well feature not only Iranian missiles smuggled through Sudan, but NATO-quality small arms and shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that come by way of Hamas’s most recent weapons supplier, post-Qaddafi Libya.
Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense also zeroed in on Hamas commanders, most notably Ahmed al-Jabari, Hamas’s chief of staff, responsible for the group’s military operations. It was Jabari who replaced Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, assassinated in a Dubai hotel room almost three years ago in an operation usually attributed to Israel. In a sense, then, Pillar of Defense began back in January 2010 in that most profligate of the United Arab Emirates—which is also a veritable weapons bazaar.
“It’s the Casablanca of the Middle East, with all sorts of shady characters, money laundering, and arms deals,” says Michael Ross, a former Mossad operations officer. “With the Mabhouh assassination, the UAE authorities had all this video feed of what were allegedly Mossad operatives moving in and out of Dubai, but what they didn’t show was footage of Mabhouh meeting with a banker, then with his contact from the IRGC [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps].” According to Ross, Mabhouh’s briefcase was a treasure trove of information detailing what items Hamas procured from the Iranians and the logistics of getting them to Gaza.
Arms smuggling was a problem in Gaza long before Hamas took control, says Major (Res.) Aviv Oreg, formerly in charge of the al Qaeda and global jihad desk in Israel’s military intelligence service and now head of a private consulting firm specializing in terrorism, CeifiT. “In the past, there was a maritime route via Syria or Lebanon, and when the smugglers approached the location they’d put the weapons in large flotation devices with the hope that the current would take it ashore,” says Oreg. “Sometimes it got tangled up in fishermen’s nets.”
When the Israeli Navy interdicted the Karine A freighter in 2002 and stopped a large cache of Iranian-made weapons from reaching Gaza, it not only turned George W. Bush against Yasser Arafat for good, it also signaled that Israel had closed Iran’s maritime route to Gaza once and for all. And yet as Israel’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza cleared the way for Hamas’s 2007 takeover, the outfit sought more sophisticated weapons, and Iran’s support. The question for Tehran was how to get arms to their Palestinian clients.
“The ships usually start in the port of Bandar Abbas,” says Oreg. “They come through the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, around the Arabian Peninsula, and crossing through the Bab el-Mandeb strait, docking in Port Sudan.” Occasionally the Iranians will dock in Eritrea, “just to mix things up,” but their preferred point of entry is Sudan.
Sudan is critical, agrees Michael Ross. “This is where the parts for Iranian weapons are assembled. The guys in Gaza aren’t too swift in putting together complicated systems like the Fajr-5. Some assembly may be required when it hits Gaza, but the more complicated, high-tech aspects of the weapons systems are assembled in Sudan by Iranians, who have a large presence in Khartoum, at places like the al-Yarmouk factory.”
In October, an operation widely credited to Israel destroyed this key Iranian weapons depot. Other attacks on Sudanese soil attributed to Israel, such as the spring 2009 series of strikes on weapons convoys, have left some wondering what the government in Khartoum has to gain from painting a big target on its head for the IDF.
Money is part of it, says Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who points to extensive economic cooperation between Iran and Sudan. “But there are also ideological reasons. These are radical Islamists, they’ve been angry at the world since their president, Omar al-Bashir, was indicted for war crimes, and they don’t like Israel.”
Even if it were possible to convince Khartoum to sever ties with Tehran, says Oreg, “the Iranians would find a replacement without too much difficulty, Eritrea or Somalia, both places where the central government is incapable of extending control over its territory.” In any case, the real problem is Egypt.
Sudanese smugglers, mostly from the Rashaida tribe, transport the weapons from Port Sudan in trucks across the Nubian Desert to the Egyptian border, all the way through Egypt’s Eastern Desert along the Red Sea, and through the Suez Canal deep into the Sinai Peninsula. “The easiest way to cut off Hamas’s weapons supply,” says Ross, “would be to shut down the shipments coming out of Sudan, at the source, rather than in Sinai. The routes are limited, and this could easily be accomplished if the Egyptian military made an effort. But the army has always been the problem. While Mubarak was president, it was the intelligence service under Omar Suleiman that stopped shipments, kept radical elements at bay, and cooperated very closely with Israel. The military looks the other way and just doesn’t care.”
In fact, since the August jihadist attack in the Sinai that killed 16 Egyptian border guards, the army has been more vigilant, recognizing that its own security, and not merely Israel’s, is at stake. The proliferation of foreign fighters in the Sinai, some of them aligned with Egypt’s Salafist movement, moreover, poses a big political risk for Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Judging by his actions during Pillar of Defense, Morsi believes that keeping the peace with Israel is in the national interest. That still leaves plenty of room for him to be outflanked on his right by the Salafists and armed fighters whose prestige rests precisely on the fact that they are fighting Israel. The problem, then, is that if Morsi closes the tunnels, affecting both Hamas and the Sinai jihadists, the latter will turn on him; if he doesn’t, the jihadists will eventually come for him anyway.
In any case, he has an excuse for the United States and Israel ready at hand: Practically speaking, it’s almost impossible to shut down the entire network of tunnels between Sinai and Gaza—and for that, he can lay some of the blame at Mubarak’s feet.
“The nomadic tribes in the Sinai were neglected by the government for years,” says Oreg. “There are no roads, no employment, and their main source of income became smuggling—not only weapons into Gaza, but routes into Israel also, smuggling drugs and women.” The Tarabin tribe, he explains, is the most dominant—and the wealthiest. “In Sinai, the biggest and most expensive houses belong to smugglers. For one AK-47, a smuggler gets $1,000.”
Besides the profit motive for smuggling, there are also geographical issues that make it difficult to close the industry. “With the high mountains in the Sinai,” says Oreg, “it’s easy for the smugglers to move around, and not even the Egyptian Army can do much about it.”
The Gaza side of the border is even more economically dependent on the tunnel networks that, since Hamas took over, have become highly regulated. “After the blockade of Gaza,” says Oreg, “everything went through tunnels. All of Gaza’s international trade is conducted through the tunnels, thousands of them. Hamas has basically institutionalized the tunnel industry, requiring registration for tunnels and imposing taxes on them. You can make up to $50,000 a month on a tunnel.”
Not surprisingly, Libyan entrepreneurs now want a piece of the action. The supply line, according to Oreg, is the same—via Sudan. “But eventually,” says Oreg, “they will likely build smuggling networks through the Libyan desert into Egypt.” What’s different, says Ross, is the materiel. “For instance, they’ve got FN F2000s, a Belgian-manufactured military assault rifle. The Europeans, in their infinite wisdom, treated Qaddafi like just another client. And so after Qaddafi, people found warehouses full of munitions, and if you’re sitting on a stockpile, it’s not too tough to make contacts with middlemen and facilitators. What a wild west that’s become.”
Israeli officials might be worried about the Sinai turning into an Afghanistan on their border, but with Hamas, they’re looking at a garrison equipped with Iranian missiles and European small arms. “We saw how much Hamas had at its disposal with Operation Pillar of Defense,” notes Ross. “There was no ground incursion this time around, but you’d have seen them breaking out all sorts of stuff, like NATO-quality small arms. We’ve come a long way from the First Intifada and 8-year-olds throwing rocks.”
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard