Israel Sets New Red Lines Over Gaza as Hamas Warns of 'Immediate and Decisive Response'

Starting Friday, the military will intensify its response to airborne firebombs from Gaza and will extend its firing range during protests along the border ■ Despite policy changes, Gaza mosques call for mass participation in Friday's protests

Israeli soldiers stand in front of a house that was seriously damaged by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, Be'er Sheva, Israel, October 17, 2018.
\ Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli military began boosting its forces in the south on Thursday afternoon, with tanks, artillery and engineering troops seen along the Gaza Strip. At this stage it is not clear whether the reinforcement is in response to Wednesday's security cabinet decision according to which the IDF is likely to carry out actions near the fence, such as widening the area on the Gazan side that Gaza residents are prohibited from entering – or whether this is in fact preparation for a particular significant event. 

The Airport Authority also announced changes in takeoff and landing routes, saying this was "due to the security situaton."  

In contrast to previous military operations in which the deployment of forces was conducted in a covert manner in order to maintain the element of surprise, the forces that are currently positioning themselves along the Gaza border are easily visible from main roads. This might indicate that Israel is interested in sending a message to the other side, namely that that there is deployment underway toward a military operation if quiet does not return to the fence on Friday – when Gazans stage large protests and attempt to infiltrate the border. 

It's possible that the messages that were released at the end of  the cabinet meeting, according to which there is no intention of launching a new operation, are part of an effort by the military and political echelons to create an element of surprise for the IDF if a decision is made to launch a military operation or a significant engineering initiative along the fence. 

Hamas' military branch warned Israel on Thursday "not to err in assessments on the Gaza Strip." The message included a video showing Hamas operatives preparing for military action. "It would be advised to read us correctly. A mistake won't be beneficial," said the message.

The Israeli army's Home Front Command removed security restrictions from the Gaza border communities earlier Thursday, and called on the public to prepare for emergency.

The security cabinet convened for five hours late Wednesday night after rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip, damaging a house severely in Be'er Sheva. 

As opposed to the cabinet members' hawkish statements to the press before the meeting, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, most of them expressed much more subdued opinions about the nature of the desired Israeli response. 

At the end of the discussion, the security cabinet decided to wait and see how the night passed as well as setting new red lines for the protests along the border fence with Gaza that are expected to take place on Friday, as has been the case for months.

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According to the new policy, which will take effect on Friday, Palestinian protesters will have to remain farther away from the border – otherwise soldiers will open fire – and the response to incendiary balloons and kites launched from Gaza will be more forceful. 

The ministers were instructed at the end of meeting not to speak to the media on the matter.

Lieberman presented a harsher view but was met with criticism from other ministers over his failure to present a practical plan to match his declarations. Education Minister Naftali Bennett is also promoting additional military action, but objects to a ground operation inside the Gaza Strip. 

Most of the other members of the security cabinet, including Netanyahu, preferred to continue avoiding a broader military operation  – and wait for Friday’s protests, while at the same time continuing with the efforts by Egypt and the United Nations to calm down the latest round of violence.

Despite the Israeli demand of Hamas to lower the heat on protests at the fence, mosques all over the Strip on Thursday called for mass participation in Friday's demonstrations along the border. 

An Egyptian security delegation arrived in Gaza on Thursday, and met with Hamas officials, including Politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh and the organization's leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, a diplomatic Hamas official told Haaretz.

According to the official, the Egyptian pressured Hamas to lower the flames ahead of Friday's protest at the fence, out of fear of a severe Israeli response. It is unclear whether the delegation conveyed any direct messages from Israel to Hamas.

The escalation started early on Wednesday morning when a rocket launched from the Strip hit a house in the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheva. Another rocket landed in the sea near Israel's largest metropolitan area.

The military said it struck 20 targets in Gaza in response, including a Hamas attack tunnel in the southern Strip

Ahead of a security cabinet meeting on the situation later on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that "if these attacks do not desist – we will stop them" and vowed that "Israel will act with great force."

Hamas, for its part, warned Israel that any strike overnight by IDF in the Strip would trigger "an immediate and decisive response."