The Israeli army has arrested three Palestinians armed with grenades and knives who infiltrated into Israel through the border from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. The three were arrested more than 12 miles inside Israeli territory, near the Tze'elim army base in the south.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Israel Defence Forces said it found tracks near the fence with Gaza, raising suspicions a Palestinian may have crossed the border in a breach of security.
This was the second successful infiltration from Gaza into Israel, after four Palestinians illegally crossed the border on Saturday and tried to set fire to military vehicles. The IDF has been on high alert near the Gaza border since then.
The army said the footprints were found during a routine patrol along the border fence and informed local municipalities. The IDF has since announced a "back to normal" alert level.
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The three Palestinians entered Israel during the night without being noticed by the military. The route they traveled for the 12 miles from the border to Tze’elim has a number of communities along the way, which the terrorists could have entered to carry out an attack.
A preliminary inquiry conducted by the IDF found an alarm went off during the night to indicate that the border fence had been disturbed. Troops were sent to the scene but they did not detect the infiltration.
Around 9 A.M. a routine patrol saw the fence had been cut and found footprints near it. The army began its search procedures. The three Palestinians, all residents of Rafah, were caught at 10:35 A.M. They had three grenades, knives and devices they used to cut the fence.
It seems that Palestinians in Gaza have recently realized that it is easier to reach the border fence than they had previously thought, said defense officials. This may be the result of the incident in February in which four IDF soldiers were wounded by an explosive device when they approached the fence to remove a Palestinian flag Hamas had placed during riots in the Strip.
Israel is gearing up for mass protests planned for this Friday along the border fence. The Palestinians are planning on establishing six to eight large tent camps, capable of housing thousands of people, mostly women and children, along the border – but some 700 meters from the fence.
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said most of the Palestinians attempting to cross the border fence are coming to Israel to look for work, but “this time we view them as terrorists in every way.” However, the army is finding it difficult to determine whether they actually intended to carry out a terrorist attack.
“We know they passed close to communities and chose not to enter and attack, so we are still investigating their intentions in infiltrating into Israel,” said Manelis. The IDF has not yet been able to determine if they are affiliated with any terrorist organization.
Manelis said it is possible to cross the border fence but the IDF acts to immediately capture anyone who does so. “This is an incident with serious potential that should not have occurred,” he said. The army will continue to investigate the incident given that the outcome could have been much more serious, he added.
The incident started around 5 P.M., when four Palestinians carrying bottles filled with flammable material approached the fence on foot and managed to cross the border into Israel near Kibbutz Kissufim, said the IDF.
The group then attempted to set fire to an Israeli army vehicle near the site of construction work on the security barrier, the military said. When Israeli troops arrived, the Palestinians fled back into Gaza.
Tuesday's incident is considered to be much more serious than the previous infiltration on Saturday, said a senior defense official.
Lawmaker Haim Jelin of Yesh Atid, a former head of the Eshkol Regional Council near the border with Gaza and a member of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said the question of how the terrorists managed to penetrate so deep into Israel from Gaza needs to be quickly investigated by the all security organizations. “Over time the IDF and civilians are building resilience together in the area near Gaza and without a doubt this incident could cause the strong trust to quickly crack. We must draw the conclusions immediately and act to fix the mistakes, without searching for scapegoats and without delay,” said Jelin.
“In the kibbutz security camera footage in our possession, you can clearly see that the terrorists roamed around without hindrance for many minutes near the community’s wide-open gate,” he continued. “By luck, a disaster was averted in this community today.”
“Tze’elim is admittedly 20 kilometers from the border and isn’t defined as being within the ‘Gaza envelope,’ but this didn’t stop the terrorists from coming to our doorstep,” he added, referring to communities within seven kilometers of the Gaza border. “This undermines the residents’ sense of security, especially because the community lacks any of the security measures possessed by envelope communities in the same [regional] council.
“We expect the state to view this incident as a warning that the arbitrary distance set for the Gaza envelope is no longer relevant, and security measures must be bolstered in communities farther away as well, including assistance and funding for a security coordinator, first-response teams, emergency responders and all the other measures – and the sooner the better.”
Overnight Sunday, Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system was activated by Hamas gunfire.