Israel Raises Alert Level Fearing Islamic Jihad Retaliation for Gaza Tunnel Bombing; Anti-rocket Systems Deployed

Heightening of nationwide alert follows threats by Gaza-based militant group to avenge killing of 12 of its fighters; comes amid raised tensions in Israel's north after army downs Syrian drone

Israeli soldiers near Gaza after Israel bombed a cross-border attack tunnel, October 30, 2017.
Israeli soldiers near Gaza after Israel bombed a cross-border attack tunnel, October 30, 2017. Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The Israeli military raised its alert level on Monday, taking various measures in the wake of new assessments that the Islamic Jihad will attempt a revenge attack. The leadership of the Gaza-based group is threatening revenge over Israel's bombing of a cross-border attack tunnel near Gaza two weeks ago, in which 12 members of Islamic Jihad and Hamas were killed. These measures, which are considered exceptional, included the deployment of anti-rocket Iron Dome batteries in central Israel, but not the calling up of reservists. This is the first time such measures were taken since the 2014 Gaza war ended.

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The assessments regarding Islamic Jihad involve a range of possibilities on the Gaza border and further beyond. The organization controls dozens of Grad-type Katyusha rockets with a range of over 40 kilometers, capable of hitting Ashdod and Be’er Sheva, and possibly even longer-range rockets. The group also still has operational capabilities in certain areas of the West Bank, including the Jenin area, but it is unclear whether it could carry out an attack. Islamic Jihad is under pressure both from Israel’s security services and the Palestinian Authority’s intelligence apparatus.

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Israel and Islamic Jihad have exchanged threats over the past few days. The coordinator of government activities in the territories, Gen. Yoav Mordechai, announced in Arabic on Saturday a warning that Islamic Jihad “is playing with fire on the backs of residents of the Gaza Strip, and at the expense of the internal Palestinian reconciliation and the entire region.” Mordechai stressed in the video message: “Just to be clear, Israel will respond forcefully and resolutely to any Islamic Jihad reaction whatsoever — not just against Jihad, but also against Hamas.” The video concluded, “We advise Islamic Jihad’s leadership in Damascus to exercise caution and keep things under control.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel holds Hamas responsible for any attack originating from Gaza. “We will take a very firm stance against anyone who tries to attack us or attacks us from any area,” he warned. Islamic Jihad responded that it would see any attack on its leadership as a declaration of war against it.

Although two weeks have passed since the bombing of the tunnel, which extended into Israel beneath the large fence at a distance of about a kilometer from Kibbutz Kisufim, defense officials have the impression that Islamic Jihad has not abandoned its revenge plan following the killing of its members, who were hit when the Israeli army attacked the eastern side of the tunnel, inside Israeli territory. It seems that the organization is preparing to carry out an attack, and the intention is to make a reverberating response. Under such circumstances, Israel is expected to respond harshly. From such a point, the road to another round of real blows with Gaza, which would be the first one in three years, is liable to be short.

The lack of an immediate retaliation by Islamic Jihad likely stemmed as well from measures that Hamas against it. Hamas feared two weeks ago that an escalation with Israel would undermine its process of reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority. However, reconciliation talks have really slowed down since then, and the Palestinian Authority has yet to release funds to Hamas that it had hoped for in order to fund salaries of government workers in Gaza and to help fund the electricity supply from Israel to Gaza. Failure to attain a breakthrough in the unity talks could lessen the motivation of Hamas to restrain Islamic Jihad.

Escalation in the south is happening as tension remains in the north along the Syrian border. The Israeli army last weekend shot down a drone, most likely Syrian, which had infiltrated the demilitarized zone in the Golan border. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman threatened in response that Israel would take action to thwart Iran’s attempt, with Hezbollah’s help, to establish a military presence in Syria. Israeli analysts are still struggling to decipher Saudi Arabia’s moves, chief among them the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Said Al-Hariri (which seemed to have been dictated by Riyadh) – which they see as having added to confusion and instability in the region.