IDF tank Gaza border
An IDF tank in Kerem Shalom region near the Gaza border, Oct. 4, 2011. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz
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Planned attacks against Israeli soldiers along the Gaza border are on the rise since the latest round of violence three weeks ago, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF has reportedly registered an increase in the number of incidents involving patrols stationed near the Gaza border in the last three weeks. Troops in the Gaza Division located several improvised explosive devises last week along the route running parallel to the fence along the southern Gaza border. Officers say 50 kilograms of explosives were aimed at one of the patrols.

"For us this is what we mean when we refer to escalation in recent weeks," said Lt. Col. Yariv Ben-Ezra, commander of Battalion 50 of the Nahal. "A week ago we found a 12-kilogram IED, and during the past week there were others, which means that their target was much more substantive."

The Nahal Brigade has been deployed on the southern front for six months, with Ben-Ezra and his officers stationed in the Kisufim area. Ben-Ezra says that the nature of operations in the area has changed since the release of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in October.

"The area changed completely and there are many more tactical incidents, starting with anti-tank fire to mortars fired at us sporadically," said Ben-Ezra.

Recently, more than 50 mortar shells have been fired near where his soldiers operate, as well as inside the outposts, he said.

"The area is much more active, and there is a lot of activity mostly by small organizations," said Ben-Ezra. "The other side is frustrated that their escalation of rocket fire into the south has had no impact, and it is clear to us that if there had been mistakes, if we were exposed and became an easy target, then they would hit us."

The threat of anti-tank missiles has significantly altered the way operations are carried out on the Gaza front. According to Division orders, activity near the fence is prohibited during the middle of the day, due to concern that soldiers could be targeted with anti-tank missiles. The very day that the recent escalation began - even before the killing of a senior figure in the Popular Resistance Committees - an anti-tank missile was fired at troops on patrol, said Ben-Ezra. "It slipped from the headlines but a 170-millimeter rocket was fired at us and this is something that occurs once a week," he said.

In response to the anti-tank missile threats, Brig. Gen. Yossi Bachar, commander of the Gaza Division, has requested tanks equipped with Windbreaker, a system that protects armor against incoming missiles.

Meanwhile, the main threats for troops are enemy observers. They approach the fence armed with a camera and a notebook, posing as innocent civilians such as goat herders, or traveling with a donkey and cart. Unlike the situation in the West Bank, the "red line" is clear to troops stationed near Gaza: If someone comes within 300 meters of the fence, the troops may ask for permission to open fire with a heavy machine gun in order to drive the person away.

A visit to the area suggests that the situation is calm, and intelligence assessments indicate that Hamas intends to keep it that way. On Friday, Hamas militants were seen dispersing a mass demonstration in front of the Erez crossing in northern Gaza and in Khan Younis in the south.

But for Ben-Ezra and other commanders, it appears just a matter of time before they are forced to undertake a more aggressive mission in the Gaza Strip. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has already given orders to start training for operations in Gaza, and the infantry brigades are scheduled to complete their preparations for these drills shortly. "This pressure cooker will explode some time," said Ben-Ezra.