Violent nighttime incidents along the Gaza-Israel border are creating a new risk of a broader conflict with Hamas and are different in nature than the weekly protests that have been carried out on the border on Fridays for almost a year.
On Monday evening, another violent nighttime demonstration took place across the border from Kibbutz Nahal Oz. These protests are led by a Hamas special night forces unit and are aimed at harassing Israeli soldiers and residents of Israeli border communities near the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The nighttime unit is comprised of older, more experienced operatives, in contrast to the young men who are prominent at the Friday protests, and the level of violence is much higher at the nighttime demonstrations.
On Monday, dozens of Palestinians began arriving at the border fence shortly before dark, at around 5 P.M., equipped with tires to burn and other gear. As soon as darkness fell, they began burning the tires and tried to roll them as close as possible to the fence to make it harder for Israeli snipers to spot and to target key operatives on the Gaza side.
About an hour later, the demonstrators began throwing homemade explosives at the Israeli soldiers from behind a screen of black smoke produced by the burning tires. Most of the dozens of explosive charges were fairly small and landed on the Gaza side of the border, but some were powerful and set off explosions that could be clearly heard in Israeli border communities.
Most of the more powerful bombs were deployed far from the fence. They were apparently intended mainly to sow fear among Israeli soldiers and civilians nearby. In the course of the demonstration, the Palestinians also blasted the sound of prayers and music through loudspeakers to harass Israelis living near the border.
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The Israeli army is handling the nighttime demonstrations differently from the weekly Friday protests, which take place during the day. The combination of the darkness, the extreme violence, the fear of Palestinian infiltrations and the bombs thrown at soldiers have all led officers to order increased use of live fire.
This increases the risk of Palestinian casualties, which in turn could elicit a violent response from Hamas or Islamic Jihad in Gaza. And that point, the path to broader escalation is short.
At about 7:30 P.M. on Monday, an on-site manager whose workers are building a new barrier along the border was asked by his workers to call in a military force to come protect them. The workers said they were afraid of the bombs and the protest, which was taking place a short distance away. About half an hour later, a decision was made to remove the workers from the site. The army also issued an order that nobody approach the border fence while the protests were in progress.
The army usually considers nighttime incidents worthy of note only if there is an exceptionally high level of violence or if soldiers are wounded or killed. But for the residents of communities near the border, the recent nighttime demonstrations are very significant. They sometimes occur several times a week and affect the residents’ sense of security.
Residents said their children are now afraid to go out in the evenings because of the explosions and are demanding that the army take more aggressive action to stop the protests.
In another development, on Tuesday the firefighting service reported that an incendiary balloon from Gaza had set a field on fire on the Israeli side, the first such incident for a considerable period of time. Although the Palestinians had never stopped launching incendiary balloons, the balloons haven’t ignited any fires in recent months due to the rainy weather and the fact that the vegetation is damp.
But the army expects the incendiary balloons to continue to be launched even if the demonstrations die down. As a result, once the rainy season ends and the vegetation dries out, fires will likely resume again be a constant fact of life near the Gaza border.