Tunnel walls close in for Hamas as the psychological war intensifies

First sighting of Sinwar in the depths of Gaza as evidence continues to mount up


Yahya al-Sinwar (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

February 15, 2024 13:01

In the three and a half months since the IDF’s ground manoeuvre in Gaza began, the officers from Military Intelligence’s Unit 504 and Shin Bet operatives accompanying the forces have retrieved an unprecedented trove of information. Millions of documents, computer hard-drives, CCTV footage and thousands of hours of interrogations of Hamas members captured. Sorting out this deluge of intel is a major challenge for Israel’s intelligence community.

The priorities are any item of information that can indicate the location of hostages, so a rescue operation like the one that took place in Rafah early on Monday morning, where Louis Har, 70, and Fernando Simon Marman, 60 were rescued, can be mounted. While Hamas tries to move the hostages around as much as they can, constant Israeli drone surveillance  limits their movements. In this case the hostages were located in the Shabura neighbourhood of Rafah (where incidentally the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, Husam Zomlot, was born) weeks before the operation. But the presence of guards within the flat where they were being held made the hostage’s extraction extremely dangerous. More detailed intelligence had to be collected before the go-ahead for the operation could be given.

In the run-up to such an operation, an essential element of intelligence picture prepared is not just how many guards are with the hostages, but who do they directly answer to. Disrupting their chain-of-command, through targeted assassinations just before the rescue mission is one way of disorienting the guards and increasing the chances of getting the hostages out alive. In this case, it worked.

Reliable and up-to-date information on the immediate whereabouts of senior Hamas commanders are what they call in Israeli intelligence “the golden report” and once such a report has been obtained, the most important thing is to prevent the enemy from knowing he has been revealed. The decision on Tuesday evening to publish footage of Yahya Sinwar, Hamas leader in Gaza and one of the main masterminds of the October 7 attack, was not reached easily. Even though the images of Sinwar walking through a tunnel with his family were about four months old and he has since then changed hiding-places multiple times, the publication will give Hamas a better idea of how much Israel now knows and its vulnerabilities. This weighed against the advantages in publication.

Hamas uses security cameras to warn them of Israeli raids on their tunnels. This may make them switch them off. And then there’s the psychological-warfare element. Sinwar is extremely wary of communicating with his men out in the field. Throughout the war there have been days, even weeks, in which he has remained incommunicado. Most of the orders he gives are put out in writing using children as runners. Hamas’ representatives outside Gaza who are negotiating a a hostage agreement often have to wait for days before getting his response to the latest proposal. The feeling that Israel has “eyes on him” will make him even warier and Hamas field commanders will have to fend for themselves.

Then there is Sinwar’s image among the population of Gaza. He hasn’t been heard or seen from since the war began. These are the first pictures of him and in them he is a hunted man, hiding with his family deep underground. Not the way he would want to appear to the Gazans above ground who are bearing the brunt of bombardments. He will need to repair that image but to do that he has to appear in public and for that he needs a period of truce, a temporary ceasefire. Perhaps this will cause Hamas’ representatives to become more flexible in the ongoing negotiations in Cairo over a possible hostage deal.

The image of Sinwar hiding underground was broadcast also to reinforce the impression of Hamas losing control over its own fighters and over Gaza in general. Hamas are acutely aware of how this impression can harm them. It’s why last week they made a big deal out of deploying uniformed police in a few parts of Gaza City the IDF had left, and paid the salaries of a few civil servants. These are largely meaningless gestures that don’t necessary indicate the movement’s level of governance in Gaza, but they yielded the headlines Hamas was after.

“Hamas is in a dilemma,” says one Israeli intelligence official. “Its fighters have transitioned into ‘guerilla mode’. Their military structure of battalions is no longer relevant in most areas and they have to operate deep underground in tiny cells in order to survive. But the longer they stay in ‘guerilla mode’, the more it becomes clear that they have lost their biggest asset in the past 16 and a half years, their ability to govern Gaza. And the more difficult it will be to restore that.”

The tunnel networks under Gaza and Khan Younis have been effective so far in protecting Sinwar and most of the other senior members of Hamas’ leadership, as well as thousands of fighters who are still alive. This has surprised Israeli intelligence, who expected them not to last as long underground. But Hamas have been surprised as well. They never expected the IDF to penetrate so deeply into Gaza and to remain there for so long. Sinwar was one of the founders of Hamas’ military wing, back in the late 1980s, but since his release from prison in 2011 he has moved to the political wing. At the age of 61, and with a young family, he is less inclined towards living once again like a guerilla. And then there’s the political aspect. Hiding away for months doesn’t just mean Hamas has less control overground in Gaza. It also means that his rivals in the “outside” Hamas political leadership, can gain ground. So far he has stayed a step ahead of Israel, but the walls of the tunnel are starting to close in.

February 15, 2024 13:01

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