Hamas is very concerned about the normalization of relations between Sudan and Israel. Sudan, a Sunni Muslim state, has for many years been a convenient setting for the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas and a vital smuggling route for weapons from Iran into the Gaza Strip because of its location along the Red Sea.
The Israel-Sudan agreement is a double whammy to Iran and Hamas alike.
On Oct. 23, Hamas issued a statement condemning the reement, calling on the Sudanese people to “fight all forms of normalization and have nothing to do with the criminal enemy.”
Hamas’ statement warned that the agreement would not bring stability to Sudan, would not improve its situation, “and would tear up Sudan itself.”
A pariah state
Sudan was a terrorist-supporting state that hosted al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden and even embraced Hamas. This policy was conducted by Omar al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan from 1989 to 2019, dispersed the National Assembly and governed by martial sharia law. In March 2009, al-Bashir was indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity over his role in the savage campaign of murder, rape and pillage in Darfur. Al-Bashir was deposed in a coup in April 2019.
Israeli airstrikes in Sudan
More than 10 years ago, Israeli intelligence discovered that Sudan served as a major route for transferring weapons from Iran to the Gaza Strip. According to foreign sources (and confirmed by Israeli security sources over the years), the Israeli Air Force attacked targets inside Sudan several times as part of Israel’s fight against Iranian arms smuggling.
In March 2009, Time Magazine published reports from Israeli security officials that Israeli planes and unmanned aircraft had attacked a Sudanese convoy during “Operation Cast Lead” in Gaza. The convoy consisted of 23 trucks carrying weapons intended for the Gaza Strip. The Israeli air operation aimed to stop the supply of weapons to Hamas and send a message to Iran about Israel’s precise intelligence and operational capabilities.
The attack against the convoy was a complex operation 1,800 miles from Israel, that required refueling of the F-16 fighter jets in the air over the Red Sea. The convoy was carrying some 120 tons of Iranian weapons, including anti-tank missiles and Fajr-3 rockets capable of reaching targets 40 km (25 miles) away and equipped with 45 kg warheads. Several Iranian civilians and Sudanese smugglers were killed in the strike.
A few days before the attack, the United States warned the Sudanese government not to allow the smuggling of weapons from its territory. The Sudanese government ignored the warning.
Indeed, even after the successful Israeli attack, arms smuggling continued from Sudanese territory to the Gaza Strip.
Yuval Diskin, the head of the Israel Security Agency at the time, revealed at a government meeting in 2009 that in the months after “Operation Cast Lead,” 22 tons of standard explosives, 45 tons of raw materials to create weapons, dozens of standard rockets, hundreds of mortar shells, and dozens of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles had been smuggled into the Gaza Strip.
Egypt was aware of the weapons smuggling from Sudan to the Gaza Strip and also worked to thwart the smuggling during the rule of President Hosni Mubarak. In March 2011, Egypt officially announced that the Egyptian army had stopped five vehicles carrying any weapons from Sudan on their way to the Gaza Strip, and the weapons were seized in the border area between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. The shipment included large quantities of mortar shells, grenades and explosives that were supposed to have been smuggled through the tunnels into the Gaza Strip.
According to foreign sources, in October 2012, four IAF planes attacked the Iranian al-Yarmouk plant in Sudan, which produced ammunition and weapons for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Two people were killed in the attack. According to various reports, Iran had established the factory as early as 2008.
According to intelligence experts, a large stockpile of Fajr-5 rockets that had been intended for Hamas was destroyed in the attack. The stockpile may have also contained medium-range “Shahab-3” ballistic missiles with a range of 1,280 km (800 miles), that were to have been stationed in Sudan and used to threaten Israel.
When did Sudan start working against Hamas?
In 2014, there was a turning point in Sudan when ruler Omar al-Bashir clashed with Iran, claiming that Tehran was working to spread the Shi’ite religion in Sunni Sudan. Sudan expelled Iran’s cultural attaché and closed Iranian cultural centers. The Sudanese decision was apparently made following pressure from Saudi Arabia, Tehran’s foe.
The crisis in relations between Sudan and Iran also had an impact on relations with Hamas. Sudan cooperated with Iran in smuggling weapons through its territory to Egypt and from there to the Gaza Strip. The weapons came in Iranian ships that regularly docked in Port Sudan.
In March 2014, IDF naval commandos seized the KLOS-C ship in the Red Sea. The Panama-registered ship, bearing 100 containers of weapons and cement from Iran, had been destined for Port Sudan. The IDF captured missiles with 200 km ranges that were to have been smuggled into Gaza via Hamas’s tunnels.
The interdiction occurred 1,500 km (900 miles) from Israel and demonstrated once more Israel’s superior intelligence and operations capabilities in the war against Iranian-Hamas terrorism.
After clashing with Iran, Sudan closed down Hamas offices in its territory and began arresting movement’s operative who had established a terrorist infrastructure in the country.
Following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Feb. 3 meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, with Sudan’s Sovereign Council chairman, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, it was reported that Hamas attempted to establish a branch for intelligence missions in Africa in Sudan.
The Intel Times website reported in July 2020 that the Sudanese authorities arrested in Khartoum Muhammad Ramadan’ Abd al-Gafur, head of the Africa branch of the intelligence division of Hamas’ military wing. This is the branch of Hamas that deals with building the organization’s military force through affiliates in Malaysia, Turkey and Lebanon.
In light of Hamas’s extensive activity in Sudan in the past, the organization fears that the country’s normalization agreement with Israel will include appendices on the two countries’ war against terrorism, which will tighten monitoring of Hamas operatives in the country.
Hamas activists still have a presence in the country and are assisted by Muslim Brotherhood activists and opposition figures.
After President Trump removed Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, the Khartoum regime is now motivated to portray itself to the world as a country determined to fight terrorism.
The process of normalizing relations between Arab countries and Israel is terrible news for Hamas when it comes to its military activities. The Gulf States are already limiting Hamas’ steps. In Saudi Arabia, 60 Hamas activists are being prosecuted for smuggling money through Turkey to Hamas’ military wing in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas estimates that any Arab or Islamic state that joins the normalization process with Israel will have to commit to the United States and Israel that it will fight terrorism, which means severely harming its military wing’s operations overseas, in addition to the political harm to the organization being defined as a “terrorist organization.”
In the framework of the peace agreement with Israel, this should also be a test for Sudan—committing to fighting both Shi’ite and Sunni terrorist organizations, including Hamas, which is on the top of the list due to its past activities. Israel and the United States will not give up on this issue, and therefore, Hamas is under considerable pressure.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.