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Latest Gaza Border Incident Could Signal Dangerous New Approach by Hamas

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An Israeli soldier directs a tank onto the back of a truck next to Israel's border with the central Gaza Strip February 28, 2017.
An Israeli soldier directs a tank onto the back of a truck next to Israel's border with the central Gaza Strip February 28. Credit: Amir Cohen/ Reuters

The Israel Defense Forces detonated two explosive devices on Tuesday which had been placed close to the Gaza border fence and were meant to injure Israeli soldiers, according to the IDF Spokesman.

The devices had been planted west of the fence in a buffer area on the Gaza side, in which the Israeli army — as well as a Hamas border patrol — prohibit the entry of Palestinians. The fact that someone was able to reach that area has raised suspicions that Hamas knew in advance about the attempt to place the explosives there.

One device was placed in the northern part of the Strip, the other in the south and were probably left there last week during foggy nights which obstructed visibility, says the IDF. After monitoring the devices for several days, the army decided to detonate them on Tuesday. No one was injured by the explosions and army engineers took some fragments for examination.

The army did not point to any suspects but there were some reports indicating that this was the work of Salafist elements in Gaza. However, in order to reach these locations those who planted the devices had to pass through areas controlled by Hamas border guards, whose task is to keep Palestinians — including any armed men or Salafist activists — away from the fence.

The incident comes on the heels of last week’s border flare-up in which Israeli troops near the Gaza security fence came under fire. No one was injured but a military vehicle was hit. In response, the Israeli army fired tank shells and launched an aerial attack, striking two Hamas targets in the Strip.

After these attacks, the al-Majd website, associated with Hamas security forces, cautioned that Israeli attacks will now be met with harsher Hamas responses. “The latest challenge faced by the resistance indicates that we may be on the path to a confrontation,” warned the report.

Tension between Hamas and Israel has risen in recent weeks, after a rocket exploded in an empty field in the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council area in February, with the IDF attacking five Hamas targets in retaliation. Sources in Gaza reported that four people were injured in that retaliation.

Before the two explosive devices were detected there were five incidents of rocket fire from Gaza into the Negev and one case of light weapons fire from Gaza, all occurring in the last month.

The IDF attributes all these cases to Salafist organizations, presumably acting without the consent of Hamas. In some cases, it is believed, the shooting was done as an act of defiance against Hamas, which had arrested some Salafist activists.

The Salafist groups are worried about the developing rapprochement between Egypt and Hamas, with the former waging a fierce campaign against ISIS elements in Sinai.

The latest incident, however, is different than the previous ones. The devices were placed on the western (Gazan) side of the fence, but within the security buffer zone. This zone, which was reduced to 100 meters’ width by mutual consent after Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, is one in which the IDF can operate in foiling threats to its forces or to Israeli territory. Hamas closely monitors anything that goes on close to the border through its border patrol units and has also set up observation posts along the border in recent years.

In contrast to rocket fire, placing explosive devices requires entering this area in a manner that should have been detected by Hamas guards.

This raises the suspicion, which Israel plans to investigate, that Hamas knew in advance about the Salafist group’s intentions. The assumption is connected to the appointment of Yaha Sinwar — who is expected to adopt a more belligerent approach — as the new head of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, as well as Hamas announcements a few weeks ago accusing Israel of straying from the status quo (as reflected in the shelling of its observation posts in response to the rocket fire). These announcements require close monitoring: Is Hamas changing its tactics and is this change moving the two sides closer to another round of fighting? These trends could impact events along the Gaza border in the coming weeks.

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