Analysis

A Deadly Skirmish on Gaza Border, an Inconvenient Question for Israel

Perhaps Hamas is not ready for a deal, and Israel is reading the situation with too much optimism?

an Israeli tank by the Gaza border, December 2019.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

On Sunday afternoon, the Gaza border looked deceptively pastoral. The heavy rains that have come down this winter, even in southern Israel, have left behind especially green fields. This was very far from the typical Gazan scene etched in the minds of Israelis, with the sand dunes remembered from military campaigns like Operation Protective Edge that happened in the middle of the summer. 
On the drive from Kibbutz Kisufim to the new barrier being erected by the security forces against the tunnels, adjacent to the border, a pretty, wooded hill came into view. The commander of the Horev Brigade, Lt. Col. Gal Rich, was asked whether Israeli day-trippers came here too. No, he replied. For now this is a spot known only to inhabitants of the Gazan border area and the soldiers securing the sector.

Two days later, on Tuesday evening, this hill, about 400 meters east of the fence, became a killing scene. Three young Palestinian men, inhabitants of the nearby al-Mu’azi refugee camp, crossed through the tattered old border fence. (The new barrier being built in its stead will be completed only towards the end of this year.) 
The electronic surveillance lookouts who identified the three close to the fence directed Horev fighters and a tank from the Seventh Brigade to the hill, where the infiltrators had taken cover. When a military jeep approached them, the young men threw two improvised explosive devices. The soldiers responded with gunfire and the tank crew joined in with machine gun fire. The three Palestinian were killed. There were no IDF casualties. The entire incident lasted only a few minutes. 

In retrospect, this was a rag-tag cell that wasn’t equipped with live weapons beyond the improvised devices. In other recent incidents, in broad daylight, Haruv soldiers captured infiltrators who came through the fence without any weapons, after having fired warning shots at them. This time the circumstances were different: The crossing was done at night, at a distance of about two kilometers from the kibbutz. The soldiers identified an attempt to attack them – and responded quickly and effectively, in accordance with the rules of engagement. 

The three Palestinians chose a route similar to the one taken by two similar cells, in September and October of last year. Whether they were acting at their own initiative or were manipulated into the act by activists of one of the terror organizations, it appears that the intention was to foment an incident near the fence. Anyone who is just trying to find work or is infiltrating to be sentenced to prison in Israel generally does not throw incendiary devices along the way. (The fact that there is still the phenomenon of infiltrators for purposes of getting arrested only testifies to the degree of despair in the Gaza Strip). 

During the course of the week Israel sent stern warnings to Hamas that it will not show restraint at any firing of rockets, and most especially during the summit in Jerusalem. Perhaps this is why no rockets were fired in response to the death of the young men, which the Gazan media depicted as a planned execution by the IDF. 
However, the launching of balloons to which small explosive devices are attached continued, reaching Ashdod and the Beit Shemesh area. Attached to a cluster of such balloons that landed in one of the Gaza area communities was a soccer ball in which an explosive device was concealed.  

It is Hamas that is responsible for the murderous trick – not Islamic Jihad or any smaller “dissident” organization. As was reported here this week, Hamas’ return to violence reflects dual frustration – with Egypt, which is furious with Hamas and is subverting the supply of gas to the Gaza Strip, and with Israel, which in Hamas’ view is not implementing the agreed-upon easements in the Strip at the expected pace. 

The IDF top brass, on the basis of Military Intelligence’s assessment, is sticking to its analysis of the situation: The Hamas leadership has chosen, strategically, to pursue a long-term arrangement to rehabilitate Gaza’s infrastructure and economy. Expansion of the easements, and especially the admittance of laborers to work in Israel, will be answered by a firm commitment by Hamas to maintain quiet over a long period of time. 

However, it is precisely the Hamas leadership, and the recurring incidents, that could support an opposite analysis: The organization isn’t really ripe for concessions and a prolonged truce and therefore it is once again allowing occasional violent incidents near the fence. And Israel is imposing an optimistic analysis on reality, while ignoring troubling signs that contradict its initial analysis.
From time to time Military Intelligence appoints a “red team” to reexamine, from a different perspective, the intelligence picture. The measures being taken by Israel in Gaza could have far-reaching effects. This looks like a suitable opportunity for a reexamination of the accepted assessments.