Iran is building the Palestinian Hamas a network of fortified bunkers in Gaza superior to those provided its Lebanese surrogate Hizballah.
Experts of Khatam al-Anbiya Construction Headquarters, the engineering arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards-IRGC, are reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources to be on the spot in recent weeks, supervising the rapid construction of a system of fortifications that crisscrosses the entire 360- square kilometer-area of the Gaza Strip – edge to edge and wholly underground.
Military experts say nothing as advanced as this system has ever before been seen in the Middle East. Some Western watchers judge it superior in terms of military conception to the fortifications Khatam an-Anbiya built for Hizballah in 2007 and 2008 to repair the ravages of its 2006 war on Israel.
The Iranian builders appear to be in a hurry to get the Gaza bunker network up and running before a new round of full-scale fighting erupts between the Israel Defense Forces -IDF and Hamas. This is borne out by their heavy investment in terms of time and money (an estimated $ 1billion) – and two additional features:
First, Gen. Rostam Qasemi, Khatam al-Anbiya commander, has consigned his top officers to supervising the Gaza construction project. These officers are rarely assigned jobs outside Iran. Their expertise is normally reserved for their own country's military and nuclear installations. An IRGC decision to send them to Gaza means that Tehran attaches high strategic importance to the Palestinian Hamas being provided with the best possible fortifications – as fast as possible.
Second, the tempo of construction is even more unusual for the Middle East and unprecedented in Gaza. The work is proceeding nonstop around the clock, seven days a week.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources have discerned five fortified layers in the evolving project:
Ten self-sufficient command centers for Hamas brigades
1. Ten large underground command centers are going up the length of Gaza – 41 kilometers (25 miles) tip to tip – from the Ashkelon dunes in the north to the Gaza-Israel-Egyptian border intersection in the south. These underground centers will be furnished with large stores of munitions, water, food and medical supplies as well as clinics and emergency treatment facilities. Each will house one of the brigade commanders and staff of the Hamas military wing, Izz-e-din al-Qassam.
According to our sources, the command centers are taking shape under Beit Hanoun, Beit Lahiya, Jabaliya, Gaza City, and the central Gaza Strip refugee camps at Nusrayat, Bureij, Mu'aja and Dir al Balah.
Two more command centers are being built beneath the southern towns of Khan Younis and Rafah on the Egyptian-Sinai border.
Each of these facilities is designed to enable Hamas brigades to fight Israeli forces independent of each other. They will also be self-sufficient in ammunition. For the IDF to attain control of the northern Gaza Strip, for instance, the troops would have to beat down all the Hamas command centers under their feet one by one.
2. All ten command centers will be linked to hundreds of scattered fortified positions – also underground – through two tunnel systems.
One will accommodate the rapid transfer of forces and ammo from one point to another in the area under a particular command. A second, equipped with fiber optics, will provide Hamas commanders with continuous communications links in combat conditions.
During Israel's Operation Cast Lead against Gaza in 2009, the Hamas commanders and top staff were cut off from outside contact and remained in the dark about what was happening in the battlefield.
Fellow extremists defy Hamas' order to hold their fire
3. A separate defensive line unconnected to the brigade command centers will cut across central Gaza from east to west – altogether six kilometers from the Kissufim area in the east (frequent scene of clashes between IDF patrols and different Palestinian organizations) to Tel al-Qatifa on the Mediterranean coast.
This line is designed to prevent Israel forces from cutting northern Gaza from the south and blocking the main coastal highway which links the two halves of the enclave and runs from the northern border (opposite Israeli Zikkim) to the southern town of Rafah, which is divided between Palestinian Gaza and Egyptian Sinai.
4. Underground bunkers are being built around each of the 10 command centers and the defense line, alongside which open firing positions will be situated for surface-to-surface, anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles.
5. Fortified shore outposts will defend the Gaza coastline against Israeli naval attack and be equipped with shore-to-ship missiles for striking Israeli warships.
So as not to impede this vast enterprise, Hamas' Gaza leaders are anxious to defer a military showdown with Israel until they are ready. Tuesday, January 11, Hamas' Mahmoud A-Zahar tried ordering fellow terrorist organizations, the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, to stop shooting at Israeli civilian and military targets, excepting only mortar fire against the Israeli troops advancing past the Gaza border. On no account must Israel be given a pretext for an invasion until the new fortifications are all in place, he said.
Neither organization nor the smaller groups united under the Al Qaeda-linked Jalalat roof organization showed the slightest willingness to heed him, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report. They all vowed to keep up their cross-border missiles and mortar fire, confident they could get away with defying the Hamas rulers of the Gaza Strip because they are backed from Tehran.
Iran enlists Al Qaeda to keep IDF busy in Gaza and away from Lebanon
In fact, the Jihad Islami was told not only to step up its attacks on Israel but to pass missiles and mortar shells round to all the Palestinian organizations willing to join in the assaults, even though the Israeli Air Force this week began bombarding the new fortifications, singling out the command centers under Iranian construction.
According to one theory making the rounds in Jerusalem and IDF headquarters Iran is not averse to heightened clashes around the Gaza Strip – even at the cost of an IDF campaign – if they keep Israeli troops pinned down in the Gaza sector and out of the Lebanese crisis.
(See separate article in this issue on Lebanon.)
A scarcely noticed development this week finally settled the two-year debate among intelligence experts in the US, Israel and its military over whether certain Palestinian radical groups in the Gaza Strip may be classified as linked to al Qaeda or not. The prevailing view in Washington and Jerusalem was that no such link had been proven.
But on Saturday, January 8, after IDF combat helicopters attacked a mortar-firing unit and wounded some of its members, Israeli field intelligence identified some the wounded as Yemenite fighters belonging to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula-AQAP, whom Iran had smuggled into the Gaza Strip via Sudan and Egyptian Sinai. The discovery quietly set of alarm bells in Washington and Jerusalem.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counterterrorism sources report that an unknown number of Yemenite AQAP fighters have established a presence in the Gaza Strip in partnership with a small Palestinian organization called the Monotheism and Jihad Group, which has headquarters in Gaza City.
In the past two weeks, this group has launched against Israel 10 missiles supplied by the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad. This is further proof, in any were needed after Afghanistan and Iraq that radical Shiite Iran is perfectly willing to collaborate with Sunni Al Qaeda ad hoc, when it comes to fighting America or Israel.
Radical Islamist groups in the Gaza Strip have established operational ties with al Qaeda, in response to which the AQAP dispatched fighting strength to boost their campaigns of terror on the borders of Israel and Egypt.