(JNS) It sounds like a scene from Fauda: A senior Hamas naval commando suspected of spying for Israel is clandestinely extracted from Gaza with highly valuable intelligence information in tow, leaving behind his family and friends.
The nature of such stories is that it takes time for important details to emerge. It’s entirely uncertain at this point that the event in question actually occurred, or that it occurred in the reported timeframe. Past experience teaches us that both sides have an interest, at least initially, in keeping such events under wraps. Israel so it can go about debriefing the spy and examining the intelligence information in peace and quiet, and Hamas so it can investigate how it was infiltrated and perform damage control.
The moment a story like this is reported, the interests of both sides change. Israel normally tends to stay mum; when it comes to running agents and gathering sensitive intelligence, silence is almost always golden. Hamas, on the other hand, can be expected to change tactics: Collaborators or defectors—or traitors, as they will undoubtedly be portrayed—offer an opportunity to plug breaches and create deterrence.
It’s no secret that Israel runs agents in the Palestinian arena (and beyond). This is a fundamental aspect of the job description of any Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) case officer, in any sector. In Judea and Samaria, agents and their Israeli handlers can usually meet in person. Running agents in Gaza is far more complicated because Israel no longer has a presence there.
This requires the Shin Bet to be exceedingly creative and cautious. Hamas is perpetually paranoid and extremely meticulous. All movement is closely watched and thoroughly examined. This fastidiousness doesn’t only apply to foreigners. Hamas also applies it inwardly, toward anyone within its ranks it suspects of transgressing. Every month it arrests and interrogates dozens of its own members—or random Gazans—on suspicion of collaborating with Israel. Occasionally it executes these suspects, after supposedly proving their guilt. It’s safe to assume this is what will happen now: Hamas will investigate, uncover, convict and execute.
This game of cat and mouse didn’t start yesterday and won’t end tomorrow. Israel will continue operating in the Palestinian arena and will continue to run agents (along with cyber, satellite and aerial photographs, and other methods) to gather intelligence. The benefits of a human intelligence source inside such a highly compartmentalized and suspicious organization as Hamas is critical: Because not everything is openly said or documented digitally, the agent can fill in the blanks or properly interpret the enemy’s intentions or future plans.
An agent’s value shifts according to the information he supplies. Israel has already controlled extremely valuable agents on all fronts. One of the most prominent was Mosab Hassan Yousef, the son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, otherwise known as the “Green Prince.” He gave the Shin Bet highly valuable information about planned terrorist attacks during the Second Intifada, and ultimately Israel helped relocate him to the United States, where he currently resides.
As a matter of principle, Israel attempts to exfiltrate agents if it fears their cover has been blown, not only due to a sense of personal obligation but because failure to do so will hamper future efforts to recruit other agents. Despite this, it’s likely that more than a few agents have been captured over the years, and that some of them, at least according to reports in the Arab media, have toppled entire spy networks.
In the current case, as stated, it appears that most of the details are still dark. With that, it’s easy to understand why Israel would be particularly interested in Hamas’ naval commando unit: It’s an elite fighting force, mainly created to give Hamas the ability to perpetrate high-quality attacks inside Israel. In recent years the IDF has invested heavily in fortifying the country’s southern shores—including a deep-water security barrier with motion sensors and continuous maritime patrols—but immensely valuable information from a quality agent could shed light on Hamas’s future plans and make it easier to foil them.
Yoav Limor is a veteran Israeli journalist and columnist for Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.