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Israel normalisation with Sudan ‘deals blow’ to Hamas in Gaza

Palestinian sources claim movement's procurement of weapons affected, though others say arms route dried up long ago
Ousted Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir (R) meeting with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh at the Nur mosque in Khartoum on 30 December 2011 (AFP)
By Adam Khalil in Gaza City, Gaza Strip

The normalisation agreement between Israel and Sudan poses difficult questions for Hamas, military sources and analysts have told Middle East Eye, with some speculating that the Palestinian movement's procurement of weapons may be affected.

The Israel-Sudan deal, announced last week, has been welcomed in Israeli political, security and military circles as a strategic achievement. 

Israeli mainstream media have devoted the bulk of their foreign affairs coverage this week to discussing the benefits that Israel will reap from the agreement, including the cutting off of the supply of arms, via Sudan, to Hamas and other Palestinian groups in the besieged Gaza Strip.

'The Sudan regime's rush to normalise relations with Israel constitutes a painful blow to the resistance in Gaza'

- Hamas military source

Meanwhile, Hamas, the de facto ruler of Gaza, described the Sudanese-Israeli agreement as "painful".

It is no secret that Hamas had close ties with the government of former president Omar al-Bashir, ousted by the Sudanese army last year to contain widespread popular protests against his decades-long rule.

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Hamas' relationship with Bashir for years was a strong one, with Khartoum acting as a safe haven for a number of the movement's leaders. However ties became strained in early 2016, around the time Bashir's government moved closer to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, and broke with Hamas' longtime ally Iran.

Relations worsened still following Bashir's overthrow and his succession by the Sovereignty Council, ostensibly a temporary body tasked with steering Sudan towards democracy. The Council has sought to build ties with the United States and the West, to help relieve fierce economic pressure and have sanctions lifted.

Analysts and observers have said that the UAE is behind the Sovereignty Council's hardening stance, with Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot going so far as to say Hamas had been the biggest loser from the change in Sudan.

Sudan a 'main supply line' 

Leading sources in Hamas confirmed to MEE that relations with Sudan during the Bashir era went beyond the political dimension, involving both military and security support.

The head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, revealed in an interview with the Qatari Al Jazeera channel last month that "Sudan was a main supply line for the resistance”.

'Sudan facilitated the transfer of arms through its territory to the resistance in Gaza through Egypt’s Sinai, either by sea or through tunnels under the Palestinian-Egyptian borders'

- Hamas military source

Likewise, Israeli media reported in recent days that security and intelligence services said the agreement with Sudan dealt a severe blow to Hamas, which was dealing with Sudan as an important conduit for the transfer of weapons to Gaza.

Israeli security services said that Sudan worked alongside Iran and served as a channel for transferring weapons to Hamas, adding that this explained why Israel carried out covert and overt operations inside Sudan and on its borders, and bombed targets there.

The Yediot Aharonot newspaper reported on a series of such Israeli operations in Sudan, including the airstrike in 2009, during which Israel destroyed an arms convoy of 17 trucks northwest of Port Sudan, which had been heading to Sinai then Gaza.

A few months later, an Iranian ship carrying weapons bound for Gaza via Sudan was downed, and in 2012 an arms and missile factory in Sudan had been bombed.

An official military source in Hamas said that "the Sudan regime's rush to normalise relations with Israel constitutes a painful blow to the resistance in Gaza".

The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, revealed to MEE that "Hamas and the resistance in Gaza have found over the past 10 or 15 years all the facilities in Sudan required to enhance the transfer of military capabilities into Gaza".

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With regard to the nature of these facilities, the source said that "Sudan facilitated the transfer of arms through its territory to the resistance in Gaza through Egypt’s Sinai, either by sea or through tunnels under the Palestinian-Egyptian borders".

The source refused to disclose the sources of such weapons or their type, saying only that they are "qualitative and advanced weapons".

However, other well-placed sources told MEE that Sudan's facilitation of arms transfers dried up well before Bashir's ouster, severely limiting the flow of weapons through that route.

Hamas has repeatedly acknowledged that Iran was its main supplier of weapons and military technology.

In 2012, after Israeli aircraft destroyed the Yarmouk Military Industrial Complex in Sudan, Israeli intelligence sources revealed that the operation took place based on information found in documents seized by Mossad agents from the bag of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh after his assassination in Dubai in 2010.

At the time, these sources said that one of these documents was a copy of a defence agreement between Tehran and Khartoum signed in 2008.

The agreement allegedly stipulated that Iran would produce weapons in Sudan for transfer to Hamas and its allies in the region, due to its fear that they may be targeted at sea if they were shipped to Port Sudan.

Another Hamas military source told MEE that the movement’s military capabilities witnessed a remarkable development after the war on Gaza at the end of 2008, when the faction’s performance in “engagement and confrontation” was not at the same level seen in the 2012 and 2014 wars, thanks to "Iranian support and internal development".

The source argued that the Sudanese-Israeli agreement represented a "grave loss" for the factions in Gaza, but added that "the resistance will not lack the means to obtain weapons, whether through other methods from abroad, or by manufacturing and developing them internally".

Israel's ‘qualitative and moral victory’

Security analyst Muhammad Abu Harbeed told MEE that the Sudanese-Israeli agreement would have "negative repercussions" on the factions in Gaza, and that "resistance activities” would be affected as a result.

According to Abu Harbeed, the factions have been impacted since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew former president Mohamed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013, and the subsequent security tightening in Sinai, including the destruction of smuggling tunnels with Gaza.

In March 2011, Egypt officially announced that its army had seized five cars carrying a large shipment of weapons from Sudan that were on their way to be smuggled via tunnels into Gaza.

'Israel achieved with this agreement a qualitative and moral victory, and a double blow to Palestinian movements and Iran'

- Adnan Abu Amer, analyst

The two military sources confirmed that Libya was another supply line - albeit traditionally to a lesser degree than the Sudanese line - but that all external supply routes were greatly affected by the strenuous security measures in Sinai after Sisi had taken power in Egypt.

"Israel has the right to describe its agreement with Sudan as strategic," Adnan Abu Amer, an analyst specialising in Israeli affairs, said.

"Israel achieved with this agreement a qualitative and moral victory, and a double blow to Palestinian movements and Iran, by cutting the supply line of weapons coming via Sudan, whether from Iran or smugglers and arms dealers,” he told MEE.

According to Abu Amer, the next step that Israel would seek would be to push the ruling government in Sudan to classify the Palestinian factions as one of its opponents.

Political analyst Hani Habib said that the forces in Gaza had lost an "important arena" for them in the region after the Sudanese-Israeli agreement.

“The near future will carry other shocking news, with other capitals joining the trend of normalisation with Israel,” he told MEE.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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