A profile of the Sema Dana crime clan, which controls most of the Gaza Strip through its smuggling rings and the “Palestinian Resistance Committees”, holds the key to Yasser Arafat’s remote sway over this Palestinian territory from his place of virtual confinement in Ramallah.
The clan, indigenous to the south Gazan town of Rafah, straddles the Israeli-Palestinian-Egyptian border junction. From this bastion, it runs a vast smuggling empire reaching into the kingdom of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus and the key ports of Egypt’s Sinai and Suez. Since the last century, all the illicit traffic of drugs, money, weapons, people and slaves moving along these routes has gone through Sema Dana hands.
Arafat is kept well stocked by this loyal mafia with weapons smuggled through an extensive tunnel labyrinth running under the divided Egyptian-Gazan frontier town of Rafah. The Palestinian leader also uses Jemal Sema Dana, his man in Gaza, for terror assignments such as the remote control bomb attack mounted on Wednesday October 15, on a US-CIA diplomatic convoy on a north Gazan highway near Beit Hanoun. Arafat contracted the attack via the Popular Resistance Committees run by… Jemal Sema Dana.
The Committees are essentially a single body created as a local umbrella to coordinate the terrorist operations of all the organizations in the Gaza Strip – from Fatah, Tanzim and al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to Hamas, Islamic Jihad. It has mutated more than once and today, fortified by Hizballah and al Qaeda cells, runs combined teams on missions of murder, terror and intimidation.
US President George W. Bush was quick to lay full responsibility on the Palestinian Authority and its security services for the attack on the US diplomatic convoy in Gaza. He also dramatically listed one by one the places where al Qaeda had struck American and Western targets, ending with Gaza and declaring with great emphasis: “We must not forget the lessons of the September 11 attacks!”
No world – or even Israeli – leader had until that moment hinted at the operational links between Arafat and al Qaeda.
Clearly, the presence of Osama bin Laden’s cells in the Gaza Strip and West Bank is not lost on the forces who lead the war on global terror. They must also be aware of the lead role played by the Sema Dana gang in this unholy alliance.
The “Committees'” chief is a lanky, chain-smoking 42-year-old with a John Wayne-like gait. He is often seen through a heavy cloud of cigarette smoke sipping cups of strong black tea brewed by a personal Bedouin servant. The Gazans joke wryly that a smoke cloud over the horizon is more likely to indicate Jemal Sema Dana and his cigarette are around than an Israeli targeted assassination. They know he has gone when the cloud evaporates.
And breathe a sigh of relief.
In American terms, Jemal would be described as the Godfather of Gaza, a Palestinian Tony Soprano. In Middle East terms, he is the warlord who governs the fate of the 500,000 Palestinians inhabiting the southern half of the Gaza Strip from Rafah on the Egyptian border to Deir al-Balah in the center.
Bodies found buried in the sands of Gaza or washed up on its Mediterranean beaches bear testimony to his ruthlessness against those who defy him.
The clan has many profitable side enterprises besides smuggling. Their protection racket, for instance. Gazan shopkeepers, doctors, journalists, businessmen, lawyers – and even teachers – have learned to fork over a 15 percent cut of their salaries to Sema Dana’s henchmen. Abu Mazen, the Palestinian prime minister who lasted four months, recently published a manifesto entitled “How the first Palestinian prime minister was deposed” – a document that surprisingly did not see the light of day in the Western media, which detailed how top officials of the Palestinian Authority managed to pocket some $85 million a year from this extortion racket.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources estimate the clan’s takings from middle class victims alone at an annual $20 million – a mere drop in the bucket, or 10 percent of the Sema Dana revenues. The bulk of their income derives from their management of the smuggling tunnels linking Rafah to Egyptian Sinai, a racket that lends a whole new dimension to the concept of a “criminal underworld”.
A child with a toy spade could dig a fairly deep hole in the sands of the Gaza Strip and northern Sinai. A thin top crust of shifting sands, no more than 5 to 7 meters thick, covers this region of some 360 square kilometers, roughly twice the size of Washington DC. Groundwater may well up suddenly and send rushing subsurface torrents to endanger the underground traveler. But thousands of drainage ditches and canals crisscross this underworld – some dating from Roman times. Possessed of knowledge handed down over generations, the local Bedouin know where best to dig the tunnels and how to maintain them against flooding.
These indigenous Bedouin tribes are an integral part of the extended crime family’s power base. They hire out as a disciplined and trained army of tunnel-diggers and maintenance men.
In the heady days of the 1993 Oslo Accords and the telegenic handshakes on the White House lawn, few would have dreamed that Yasser Arafat had hastened to bury the interim peace accords before the ink had dried on his signature in the Sema Dana’s smuggling tunnels.
In 1994, less than a month after Arafat was established in the Gaza Strip, those tunnels had carried hundreds – then thousands – of Palestinian combatants into the territory, in violation of the ban on this traffic written into the Oslo accords. By the time Arafat was ready to proclaim his armed confrontation against Israel in September 2000, he commanded some 120,000 men under arms in the Palestinian intelligence and security services – four times the limit set by the peace accords.
But the illegal influx of manpower, largely untrained and undisciplined, was the least of Israel’s worries at the time. More disturbing were the heavy quantities of arms and explosives entering the country through the tunnels of Rafah – again in violation of accords that were also signed by the US and Egyptian presidents. There are no exact figures for the contraband. It certainly ran to tens of thousands of tons of hardware, including such forbidden weapons as anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles. The latter are not known to have been used until now.
For this ongoing service to the Palestinian war, Arafat has paid his private warlords in Rafah a multi-million dollar annual fee. But he has done more than that. From 1994 to 2000, he personally nagged the power brokers in the presidential palace in Cairo to order the Egyptian navy and border police to turn a blind eye to the goods and men entering the tunnels from the northern Sinai end. During those years, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was receptive to Arafat’s wishes believing the Palestinian was under his thumb.
Now, Egypt rues the day. Control over the strategic Sinai Peninsula and Mediterranean and Red Sea approaches to Suez has virtually slipped out of Cairo’s grasp.
The Palestinians stepped up their war preparations in earnest after the breakdown of the August 2000 Camp David talks sponsored by US president Bill Clinton between Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Arafat. It was then that the Palestinian leader appointed Mohammed Dahlan, then head of preventive security in the Gaza Strip and Arafat’s chief terror strategist, as his point man in relations with the Sema Dana clan.
Since gaining respectability from Washington as the ousted Palestinian prime minister Abu Mazen’s internal security minister, Dahlan has tried to live down his terrorist past and denied he was ever involved with the crime clan. However, it is no secret that during his career as Arafat’s terror chief in the Gaza Strip, he made extensive use of the Sema Dana tunnels to import the weapons and explosives he needed for his operations.
He and the Gazan gang leaders were instrumental in getting terrorist recruitments from points A in Iran, Syria and Lebanon, to points B in the Gaza Strip and on to the West Bank – often through the tunnel system. Among the Hizballah and al Qaeda terrorists making their way to the Gaza Strip was Richard Reid, the British Muslim Al Qaeda shoe bomber, who spent several weeks in Gaza before his attempt in December 2001 to blow up an American Airlines plane flying from Paris to Miami.
The Hizballah cells arrived first. Some were planted before the outbreak of the intifada, reaching Sinai from Lebanon and moved across into Rafah by Sema Dana clansmen. A few were transferred to the West Bank.
The broad clandestine infiltration of al Qaeda cells came later, in April 2002, after America’s post-September 11 operation drove them out of Afghanistan. It was planned and executed from Dahlan’s private office in Gaza with the help of the far-flung Sema Dana smuggling connections in Egypt, Cyprus, Lebanon and Syria. In that month, when Israel was distracted by the suicide bombings rocking Netanya, Tel Aviv and Ashdod, several Al Qaeda-Hizballah squads crept ashore from speedboats that landed along the Mediterranean coast. They were whisked off to hideouts in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. According to several senior Israeli security officers, some also went to ground in Israeli Arab towns and villages.
A year later, shortly after the Americans invaded Iraq, two British Muslim Al Qaeda members, Asif Mohamed Hanif and Omar Khan Sharif, arrived in the Gaza Strip from a training stint in Syria. Sema Dana clansmen handed them the bomb belts they used to blow up Mike’s Place on the Tel Aviv promenade after failing to get close enough to the US embassy on the same street. The belts contained a new type of explosive never before used in terrorist attacks in Israel. It was smuggled into the Gaza Strip from northern Sinai.
Israeli military tanks and bulldozers carried out one operation after another to plow up the tunnels of Rafah. Each time, they were rebuilt. Makeshift buildings were thrown up and populated with Palestinian families in the southern Gaza town and refugee camp to conceal the tunnel openings.
So important were these subterranean routes to the schemes of a broadening circle of terrorist organizations that, to speed up their reconstruction, Arafat sent Dahlan to the Sema Dana chief in June 2001 with $45,000 for the purchase in Cairo of a French-made dredger capable of scooping out earth five to seven meters deep and one meter in diameter at a speed of 25 meters an hour. The vehicle did not throw the displaced sand onto the surface but mixed it with adhesive cement to give the tunnels hard, smooth walls.
To cover the sound of the dredger, the Palestinians pounded the Israeli army positions on the Egyptian border section of Rafah with a constant hail of grenades.
The first two years of the Israeli-Palestinian war enhanced the fortunes of the Sema Danas, raising them up from a local gang to a multi-tentacled Middle East mafia. Not content with their grip on the Egyptian-Palestinian smuggling trade routes from their Rafah home base, they branched out to seize control of the open and clandestine traffic running through the seaports of the Gaza Strip and Egypt’s northern Sinai coastline. In addition, the staff at the Egyptian airports of the peninsula, especially in El Arish and the Sharm el-Sheikh resort, were put on the Sema Dana payroll. Most of Sinai’s Egyptian naval commanders and police chiefs are in the clan’s pocket. At the very least, these officers turn a blind eye to the Palestinian clan’s pursuits.
Going from strength to strength, Sema Dana’s operational bases have been established in the Egyptian Suez towns of Port Said and Suez as well as in the Persian Gulf emirates of Qatar and Abu Dhabi, the island of Cyprus, the Lebanese cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli and the Syrian port of Tartous.
Since late 2000, the clan has maintained an operational base in the Saudi Red Sea city of Jeddah.
The crime family has added drugs and prostitutes to its Middle East smuggling operations. According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources, the Sema Danas control the main drug smuggling routes from Syria and Lebanon into Israel, Egypt and Jordan. They are also the driving force behind the illicit import of Eastern European and Far Eastern women into the Arab world, where they work as prostitutes or are sold as sex slaves. The trade in women has become the family’s second most lucrative business.
Like any mafia clan, they have had their share of in-fighting. Of eight Sema Dana brothers, only three have survived, the most powerful being Jemal.
Their relationship with Yasser Arafat has been strengthened by his two years of confinement to the West Bank city of Ramallah. Mounting international pressure to reform his financial, security and intelligence administrations has made the Palestinian leader progressively more dependent on the Rafah clan, leaving him with little to fall back on but his own private resources and the Sema Danas to keep his program of terror afloat. These tools have helped him create and expand a relatively new set of Palestinian instruments of terror on the basis of Tanzim, Fatah, Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
To prevent leaks to the Americans and Israelis, he has had to keep the inner workings of these new organizations safe from prying eyes inside the Palestinian Authority. This secrecy comes high, necessitating his resort to funds from independent sources outside PA. The loyal Sema Dana clan was his natural choice as bankers of terror. However, Arafat was wary of giving the Sema Danas too much clout as sole masters of funding and logistics. He therefore made sure they knew who was boss by asserting his control of appointments in the Palestinian hierarchy.
In the spring of 2003, the Palestinian leader rewarded Jamal Sema Dana for his services with two choice appointments. He named him publicly governor of Deir al-Balah; in secret he appointed him chief of the Popular Resistance Committees in the Gaza Strip, a job formerly reserved for such high-placed Palestinians as Sahar Habash, senior ideologue of the Palestinian national movement.
To mollify American, European and Israeli critics, who questioned the granting of a governate to a notorious smuggling chieftain, Arafat explained the new job would distance Jemal from his Rafah stronghold and smuggling tunnels.
In actual fact, the post added territory to the Sema Danas’ turf, extending it further north as far as the eastern and southern environs of Gaza City.
The secret job was even more significant. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and counter-terrorism sources report his primary duty is to coordinate and synchronize the terrorist attacks carried out by Arafat’s new terrorist networks.
In the last six months, the Gaza Strip’s crime chief has coordinated the entire campaign of terror conducted in or from the territory, whether by Arafat’s Fatah and Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades or the Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad. It is up to him to decide which organization carries out each individual attack and, equally important, which assumes responsibility.
Arafat and his senior terror advisers, whom he keeps by his side in Ramallah, decided to duplicate in the Gaza Strip the strategy employed for more than a year in the West Bank, whereby mixed squads drawn from various Palestinian organizations are used for suicide bombings and other attacks.
The tactic has two main objectives:
To emasculate the Palestinian Authority’s formal political and security organs of governance, which have become the main arena for the diplomatic activities of American, Israeli and increasingly European Union elements which seek essentially to get rid of him.
By establishing an alternative security/terrorist apparatus fully under his control, the Palestinian leader has stripped the Palestinian Authority of its powers and left the Americans and Israelis busying themselves with an empty shell. In this way, Arafat voided the Abu Mazen government of authority and brought about its collapse; his successor Ahmed Qureia is experiencing the same difficulty in forming a viable government and finding an authoritative Palestinian figure to accept the by now meaningless ministry of internal security. All the candidates know the job would consist of an armor-plated car, a staff and a salary – but no real powers.
To seal the terrorist apparatus against Israeli penetration. Israeli agents who have thoroughly infiltrated Palestinian Authority departments are finding it much harder get inside the mixed squads. This difficulty has caused three separate setbacks in Israel’s counter-terror campaign:
a. Notwithstanding round-the-clock military incursions, raids, detentions and swoops in West Bank towns – and the thousands of Palestinian suspects in custody – Israel has not been able to prevent suicide bombings from being staged in Jerusalem and Haifa. The new combined terrorist units have proved impermeable to penetration.
b. Despite massive military operations against the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, including targeted assassinations of top men, Israel has come nowhere near smashing the core terror infrastructure governed by Jemal Sema Dana and his Popular Resistance Committees or the Hamas group’s operational nucleus.
c. The smuggler chief’s sophisticated intelligence agency has managed to stay a step ahead of the all-out Israeli intelligence effort to seek out and destroy once and for all his subterranean tunnel labyrinth.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal an astonishing Israeli military intelligence lapse that only came tardily to light in the first week of October. For three years of battling the tunnels, it was believed that groundwater under the southern Gaza Strip ran 12 meters beneath the surface sands, which meant that none of the smuggling tunnels could exist at a depth greater than 10 to 11 meters. That belief rested on information procured from Palestinian double agents together with maps of existing tunnels and those under construction.
However, even after those relatively shallow underground routes were found and destroyed, the influx of Palestinian personnel, hardware and explosives kept on swelling. At first, Israeli experts put this down to the efficiency of the Sema Dana smugglers in replacing the destroyed burrows. However, one dark night in mid-September, an undercover Israeli unit entered Rafah and was led by a new piece of intelligence to the home of the gang’s superintendent of tunnels, the man responsible for maintenance and reconstruction.
The Israeli troops rousted him out of his bed without firing a shot and bundled him off for interrogation in Israel.
He was found to be one Ahmed Tubaisi, lieutenant-colonel in the Gaza Strip’s preventive security service, the outfit of ex-minister of internal security Mohammed Dahlan. The captive contended he had been moonlighting for the Sema Danas unbeknownst to Dahlan.
Israel did not buy his tale, convinced Tubaisi must have been playing a dual role under the personal protection of Arafat or one of his lieutenants.
But the real shocker came when the Palestinian officer revealed that all the tunnels Israeli forces had uncovered and destroyed so painstakingly in the past three years were red herrings. The real network was buried far deeper – 25 to 35 meters under ground and never detected. To defeat the Israeli hunters, the smugglers had recruited European geologists who located areas where the groundwater was much deeper than the standard 12 meters. Tunneling operations were henceforth focused in these areas.
The maps conveyed to the Israelis by the Palestinian double agents were part of the most ambitious campaign of deceit mounted by Palestinian leaders since the signing of the Oslo Interim Peace Accords ten years ago.
It stands to reason, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence experts, that the Palestinians received expert foreign intelligence assistance in setting up a sting operation as elaborate as the fake tunnel network, which has no doubt been used for a multitude of nefarious purposes.
In early October, Israel handed to the United States the results of this investigation. It was hoped that these findings might shed light on tricks practiced by Saddam Hussein and his companions to elude his American pursuers in Iraq.
In the second week of October, after the information was in American hands, Israel launched a lengthy, large-scale military operation to uncover the real subterranean network of smuggling routes. The operation, dubbed Operation Root Canal-2, is still in progress, carried out by the elite Givati Brigade backed by combat engineers and air support.
Alarmed by the wholesale assault on his key strategic and logistical machine, Arafat snapped off a stern message to Washington and Jerusalem through the most sensitive intelligence channels demanding an immediate halt to the operation. He warned both governments of dire consequences, threatening a campaign of terror against American targets in the West Bank and Gaza strip and stepped up terrorist operations against Israel, including mega-attacks in its cities.
When neither government responded to his threats, Arafat ordered his man in Gaza, Jemal Sema Dana, to blow up the next US diplomatic convoy passing through the Erez crossing into the Gaza Strip. Three American security men died in the attack and one was seriously injured.
Arafat, after publicly condemning the incident, told his cronies in his private den in Ramallah: “The decisive phase of the war is just beginning. In Palestine, the Americans and Israelis will be made to endure the same kind of warfare as US troops are suffering in Iraq.”