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Israel

By Donkeys And Motorcycles, Primitive Hamas Messaging

Hamas methods for getting information to and from its fighters can pose intelligence challenges for the Israeli army, preventing it from deploying its full technological capabilities.

People on the remains of a destroyed Israeli military vehicle in the Gaza Strip
People on the remains of a destroyed Israeli military vehicle in the Gaza Strip
Ofir Dor

TEL AVIV — When Hamas withdrew from the temporary Gaza cease-fire last Friday and resumed rocket fire towards Israel, it demonstrated that the Hamas military wing is capable of communicating orders to its fighters on the ground, despite the major damages the organization has sustained.

In contrast, in what appeared the preceding Friday as the abduction of an Israeli officer, Hamas actually claimed it has lost contact with its fighters in the field.

Unlike the organization Hezbollah, Hamas has no fiber-optic landline communication, says intelligence expert Shlomo Shapiro, political studies chairman at Bar Ilan University.

"Unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas needs to transmit messages across relatively short distances, and this is its advantage," Shapiro says. "The distance between Gaza's Shifa Hospital, where the Hamas leadership is located, and the border is a few kilometers. So a common way of relaying messages is by messengers on motorcycles or even donkeys. Hamas has not established an independent network, that would enable wire communication to transmit classified messages."

This poses an intelligence challenge for the Israeli army, preventing it from deploying its full technological capabilities. And yet, Israel's intelligence efforts are successful in thwarting Hamas activities, senior sources argue.

To bypass Israel's technological prowess, some Hamas messages are coded and transmitted through radio and TV broadcasts, says Barak Ben Zur of the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. "Radio presenters would receive a text that has some disguised meaning, or they might be asked to play a certain song intended to signal a Hamas squad at the north of the Gaza Strip to shoot three barrages into central Israel," says Ben Zur, a terror and intelligence expert and a former senior officer at the Israel Security Agency.

He believes that an organization such as Hamas cannot hide its plans and activities for long. "The power of an intelligence gathering system like Israel's is that it is so vast, it's impossible to keep many things away from it for a long time," he says. "Hamas is no longer a group of several hundred members, but an organization that numbers 15,000 to 20,000 people. There will always be someone who leaks."

Ben Zur also wonders whether the Palestinian group's preference for more primitive communications could be influenced by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's revelations about the capacities of intelligence agencies.

"Snowden's information was undoubtedly an eye-opener regarding the technological capacities of the American and British intelligence, and Israel's are believed to be nearing that," he says. "However, the longer this conflict goes on, the more likely that discipline will weaken. And in an organization the size of Hamas, enforcing total discipline is impossible."

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