Last Wednesday, the Israel Air Force was called into action along the border with the Gaza Strip. A Palestinian terror cell was spotted as it neared the border fence in the northern part of Gaza, along the coastline, It was laying two explosive charges, apparently with the aim of striking at Israel Defense Forces soldiers patrolling the area. An Israeli aircraft fired a missile at the cell, killing one militant and wounding three others.
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According to reports from Gaza, the Palestinian casualties belonged to one of the extremist jihadi groups that operate independently in the Gaza Strip. This is the third reported incident in the past two months in which explosive charges have been placed along the fence. They may be viewed in the same light as the firing of rockets from Gaza every few weeks.
The Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip continues to take an ambivalent approach to these organizations, some of which draw their inspiration from the Islamic State group. Others, meanwhile, are in contact with the ISIS-affiliated extremist group Wilayat Sinai (formerly known as Ansar Beit al-Maqdis) in the Sinai Peninsula. For the most part, the Gaza authorities have adopted an approach of restraint against the jihadist factions, whose border attacks on Israel also constitute acts of defiance against the Hamas regime – which has seemingly forgotten its own form of resistance against Israel.
After these incidents, Hamas will usually arrest rank-and-file members of the jihadist organizations. However, sometimes as though Hamas is winking at these armed attacks against Israel, as a way of either letting off steam or conveying a veiled threat. What’s more, the rulers in Gaza continue to collaborate with Wilayat Sinai: they jointly store arms and munitions in Sinai, while wounded activists from Sinai are occasionally brought into Gaza for medical treatment, despite the vigorous protests of the Egyptians.
Although the small factions may be in possession of the dynamite that could reignite the arena, most of the Israeli security apparatus is still focused on Hamas and its exploits. Haaretz reported this week that the most reasonable assessment is that the organization has already rehabilitated a significant portion of its system of attack tunnels, which was hit hard during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. It seems that some of the tunnels have been re-excavated and extend beyond the border, into Israel.
The IDF is taking countermeasures, including examining a new technological solution to locate the tunnels. But it seems that Hamas is one step ahead of Israel in this race, particularly in view of the fact that the latter has still not allocated any budget to upgrade the border fence or the means to thwart the construction and operation of attack tunnels – a deterrent whose cost has been estimated at no less than 2.8 billion shekels ($710 million).
Should Hamas eventually decide to instigate another round of fighting – and that could be a decision taken by the organization’s military wing, which would not necessarily seek the okay of the political leadership – there are no assurances that Israel would be able to foil a large-scale terror attack, such as an attempt to kidnap soldiers or civilians via a tunnel.
Paralysis on the road to war
Following last week’s border incident, two members of Knesset opposition factions issued statements criticizing the government’s Gaza policy. Omer Bar-Lev (Zionist Union) and Ofer Shelah (Yesh Atid) serve as chairs of two subcommittees of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and both are members of its classified forums; they jointly drafted the committee’s (shelved) report into Operation Protective Edge.
Based on the statements they released, Bar-Lev and Shelah’s operational recommendations couldn’t be more different. Bar-Lev called on the government to formulate “a clear-cut, transparent policy on the attack tunnels.” He said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “is sleeping on the job. He and his government need to wake up. Under no circumstances can Israel adopt a policy of containment against the violation of the sovereignty of the State of Israel, as was the case on the eve of Protective Edge.”
Shelah, meanwhile, accused Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon of “paralysis, on the road to war.” The incident on the Gaza border, he said, was “another step in the escalation that will lead us to the next round of violence with Hamas. There is a difference between the gunfire of wayward organizations and laying an explosive charge along the border. Add to that the attempts by Hamas to execute terrorist attacks from the West Bank, and it becomes clear that, as in the period preceding Protective Edge, the enemy may not have decided that there will be a war, but it is ready for it.”
As Shelah sees it, the reason is obvious. “The economic situation in Gaza is worse than it was six months ago. The Egyptian pressure is suffocating, and the Israeli government is doing nothing to delay the war.” Netanyahu and Ya’alon, he argued, aren’t taking the initiative and aren’t reaching out to any parties in the region who might have the means and influence to take measures that would improve the civil infrastructure of the Gaza Strip, which could ease the economic pressure.
Politicians aren’t the only ones putting forward this argument. There is growing support among high-ranking IDF officers to promote infrastructure projects in the Gaza Strip, in the hope that by demonstrating the prospect of a new economic outlook, deterioration into another round of warfare could be avoided. In June 2014, just before Protective Edge, the defense establishment weighed an easing of restrictions on the import of goods through the Kerem Shalom crossing, but the step was not authorized. The easing of these restrictions was implemented almost immediately after the war.
Six months ago, there was an attempt to promote an initiative to build a seaport in Gaza, but it was shot down by the political leadership. Now a series of more modest projects are on the agenda that could accomplish two goals: bettering the harsh living conditions in the Gaza Strip (to some degree); this in turn would reduce the pressure on Hamas and the likelihood of it making a misguided decision to go to war again.
The projects being discussed include upgrading the power line from Israel to the Gaza Strip; supplying natural gas to Gaza’s power station; constructing water desalination plants; and further expansion of the border crossing at Kerem Shalom, which would even make it possible to import construction aggregate. Gaza’s needs are known: the power grid is faltering, with some parts of the Strip only receiving electricity for six to eight hours a day. Lurking in the near-distance is the issue of drinking water: The coastal aquifer is in serious danger due to salt in the water, and officials in Gaza are concerned about a severe shortage of clean drinking water within a few years.
Israel has reasons to oppose these projects. There is concern that some of the materials that would be imported into the Gaza Strip for the projects would be diverted by Hamas for military use, as the organization has done in the past 18 months with many imported goods. In addition, the issue of the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, is still unresolved. And even if Israel approves the infrastructure plans, it is by no means certain that suitable external funding would be found for them.
Other needs that have emerged in the region – such as the transfer of 3 billion euros (about $3.2 billion) from the European Union to Turkey, so the latter will assist in the absorption of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria (and ensure they do not continue on to the West) – are now receiving higher priority. Nonetheless, the Gazan time bomb is ticking ever louder. Ignoring the problem is liable to bring Israel back to the dark days of the summer of 2014.