Tel al-Hawa, Gaza (3:35 A.M.) – Hamas has disclosed that one of its senior members, Mazen Pokha, was assassinated in the late evening of the 24th of March 2017, in the neighborhood of Tel Al-Hawa by an “Israeli agent with a suppressed pistol,” according to Hamas spokesman. Hamas have also written on their social media accounts that they hold Israel accountable for the incident which “will not pass is quiet.”

The Target:

Mazen Pokha, 38-year-old Hamas operative who was responsible back in the days of Operation Defensive shield for several terrorist attacks including the bloody suicide bomber attack on a bus (nine KIA and over 40 WIA) in Meron, Israel. He was also responsible for recruiting of suicide bombers and a series of failed terrorism actions. Throughout the years, the Israeli Shin Bet made him a prime target and was on his slippery tail. While the SB and the Israeli Defense Forces missed several opportunities to capture him (literally fingers away in one case in Jenin) – Pokha was eventually captured on April the 5th , 2002 by the direct action company of Duvdevan, one of the Israeli CT units in a high-profile raid. Pokah, unlike his peers surrounded without a fight which got him a ticket straight into the SB detention facility in central Israel.

Mazen Pokha was then released from jail on October 2011, as part of the prisoners deal with Hamas which consisted on the release of around 1000 Hamas operatives in return of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was kidnapped several years earlier from his tank during an OP.

Ever since his release and much older, Pokha was determined to return into the ranks of Hamas and to prove his relevance. He did so by joining (technically founding) the “(western) Bank Headquarters,” originally a movement Pokah and Abad A-rachman created with additional members consisting of exiled Palestinians from the western bank who were released during the October 2011 Shalit deal and used to be key players in the West Bank. The group purpose mostly was maintaining operational contacts with terror cells in the West Bank and providing mostly financial and planning support as well as orders.

A recent reminder of this group effort was the exposure of some if its members (including sleeper cells inside the Israeli territory) as it made it to the Israeli media headlines a month ago as their cell was exposed by the Israeli Intelligence community which claimed it to be “a real and immediate homeland security threat.’’ The cell’s operational mission was believed to have planned to kidnap Israelis and to conduct various hits in a clandestine manner deep within the Israeli territory. One of their plans (which was recently disclosed to the Israeli public) was their successful use of 15 fake social media accounts (female accounts ) with a clear intention to lure Israeli civilians, especially soldiers, into a meeting. The IDF later disclosed that they have evidence that the terror cell planned that, after hooking the target, the “women” (Wafa Ben Hassine operatives) would then invite them to chat on obscure apps, with names like YeeCall Pro, SR Chat or Wowo Messenger, which when is downloaded allowed Hamas to access the contents of soldiers’ phones and social media profiles. According to the IDF, the cell apparently focused its hacking efforts on soldiers rather than civilians, and focused at its beginning on soldiers stationed near the border with the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. According to some sources, it is possible that Pokah received a green light to perform a task which was to hit and kidnap IDF members.

The Location:

Pokah was assassinated just outside of his house at Tel al-Hawa. (Arabic: تل الهوا‎‎) (“Hill of the Wind”) or Tel al-Islam (“Hill of Islam”) is a neighborhood in the southern part of Gaza and located quite close to the shore of Gaza (known area for fisherman). Founded by the Palestinian National Authority in the late 1990s, Tel al-Hawa is one of the more affluent areas of the city. Hamas had initially taken control of the Neighborhood first in 2007 during its uprising. It contains the Islamic University in Gaza and the Interior Ministry of the Palestinian National Authority. It also contains one of the biggest “police” stations in Gaza. In addition, to the west of the University is one of the biggest UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) compounds. In general, it is believed to be one of the most important areas for Hamas within Gaza which was used as a massive weapons cache during previous operations (according to the IDF).

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The location of the hit might suggest that if indeed the Israelis were involved, the perpetrators have probably approached from the shore which is not so illuminated in the late evening hours.

Summary:

With Hamas expected to go into elections in the upcoming weeks and with its efforts to rebrand its image in Europe through aggressive use of social media and social events in universities and mosques, Hamas is facing a hard decision of whether to retaliate or not. Especially considering the fact that the assassination has no clear fingerprint which they could use as legitimacy. It is also important to note that unlike in other cases of assassinations or attacks by the Israelis, Hamas has of yet did not respond with rockets or any other attack as a retaliation.

The professional work of the assassins, who left without a trace is probably the biggest proof that Israel is probably the one behind the hit in the heart of Hamas territory. Its message is clear: we can and we will.  But from experience in the Middle East, what seems to be the most obvious is often the complete opposite, a mirage. It is well worth to check a current speculation that suggest that it could have been an inside hit which might be related to the shift in powers and influence that tracks all the way south to Egypt and the new local players, and even far southeast to Saudi & Iran. Either way the hit, which was done in a sensitive area, puts the leadership of Hamas not in a tough point, but rather complicated.