A series of tactical mishaps on Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip has made the security establishment very uncomfortable over the past few days, at the height of preparations for Friday’s anticipated challenge. This will be the Land Day march, which is expected to ratchet up tensions on the border in coming weeks.
The series of incidents on the border began with the detonation of an explosive device in mid-February. The device was concealed in a Palestinian flag that had been hung on the fence, and it injured four soldiers due to their disregard for orders. Since Saturday, two groups of Palestinians from Gaza infiltrated into Israel. Between these incidents, the Israel Defense Forces fired nearly 20 Iron Dome interceptor missiles in response to machine-gun fire from the Strip that had been mistakenly identified as rocket fire.
On Tuesday morning, three young Palestinian men from Rafah crossed the border and walked about 20 kilometers through Israeli territory before IDF soldiers arrested them on the outskirts of the Tze’elim army base. They had three improvised hand grenades in their possession but it is unclear what their plan was.
When terrorists breach the border fence, they usually want to strike soldiers or enter a civilian community as soon as possible (this has not happened since the disengagement from Gaza in 2005, although a few attempts have been made). Over the past few months it has become fairly common for young Palestinian men to try to enter Israel out of despair over the economic situation in Gaza. They are mainly seeking to get arrested, having heard that living conditions in Israeli prison are relatively good compared to life in Gaza. In some cases, they carry improvised weapons on the assumption that it is a serious enough charge to warrant an indictment and send them to jail, not back to Gaza and the Hamas government.
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Such infiltrators usually give themselves up as soon as they cross the border. The three young men caught on Tuesday kept going for a few hours. They did not resist arrest when spotted by soldiers at Tze’elim, and did not attempt to enter any of the bases or communities they encountered along the way to commit a terror attack.
Even if the intent here was not to commit an attack, the infiltrations revealed serious gaps in army defenses near the border. It’s no secret that the fence around the Gaza Strip, which was built after the disengagement and presented as the latest technology at the time, has become outmoded and can hardly serve its purpose anymore. It has been damaged during patrols or by IDF operations in the Strip. The completion of the new anti-tunnel barrier in about a year is expected to overcome this problem: The project also includes the construction of a new, high and modern fence above ground.
A preliminary investigation into Tuesday’s incident shows that the infiltrators took advantage of weather conditions during the night. A slight disturbance of the fence was detected at dawn, but a patrol sent to the site found nothing and it was apparently chalked up to an animal. Only in the morning, when the area was swept again, did soldiers discover that the fence had been cut and saw the footprints leading from it. It was another couple of hours before the trio were apprehended near Tze’elim.
Preparations for Friday
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who toured the Gaza Division on Tuesday afternoon, were given reports on the investigation of the breach and the troops’ readiness for Friday. Preparations for Palestinian protest rallies and the possibility of a large-scale attempt to cross the fence are continuing, and commanders have been given instructions to prevent a mass crossing while making intelligent use of riot control, and if need be, snipers.
Still, the intention is to avoid mass casualties and it cannot be ruled out that the army will show restraint if a few people do cross a short distance in Israeli territory before they are apprehended. The IDF understands that the clashes will be filmed and that every casualty will stoke the fire of conflict in Gaza – as well as the hopes of sparking renewed international interest in the Palestinian struggle, which has waned in recent years.
The Israeli media has already increased the extent of its coverage of the Gaza Strip, as well as pessimistic predictions for the weekend. Still, past experience shows that when the army actively plans for events for a suitable amount of time, it usually does not lose control. Control is lost when the IDF is surprised and does not have time to prepare, as with the mass breach of the fence on the Syrian border in the Golan Heights in May 2011. Assuming that the lessons of those events have been learned, that the troops have been properly trained and coordination with the police is sufficient, it seems that the army will be able to contain the protests and prevent a mass-casualty clash.
Reports of various rallies and protests in Gaza over the next six weeks have also caused some tension in Israeli communities near the Strip. And yet, on Tuesday, three local council heads from the border area sent a letter to Lieberman and the coordinator of government activities in the territory, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, asking to revisit the matter of entry permits for a few thousand Palestinians from Gaza to work as farm hands in Israel.
This proposal is not without its security risks, and the government will have difficulty approving it out of fear of political fallout. However, it reflects an understanding by the local leadership that troubles in Gaza will once again seep into Israel if immediate steps are not taken to ease the distress of the Palestinians there.