The resurgence of violent Hamas demonstrations along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip in the last several weeks is increasing the likelihood of military escalation in the south. The decision to resume the demonstrations and ratchet up the violence was made by Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, in an effort to exert pressure on the Palestinian Authority and Israel to break through the stalemate in talks about plans to rehabilitate the Strip, which his organization controls.
Thousands of Palestinians have been protesting along the border with the Gaza Strip over the past few weeks on Sinwar’s instructions. There are about 20,000 protesters at each Friday demonstration, and smaller protests take place all day long during the week.
The Israel Defence Forces recently reinforced its presence by augmenting its Southern Command troops but up to now, the army has not found a solution for dealing with the border unrest, which has led to the deaths in recent months of roughly 200 Palestinians, in addition to the thousands wounded by Israeli sniper fire.
Still, the IDF is firm in its view that the situation in the Strip does not justify launching a broad military confrontation against Hamas. Defense officials believe that United Nations Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov and Egypt should be given a chance to come to an arrangement in Gaza that would restore calm and lead to reconstruction of the Strip’s infrastructure.
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On Tuesday morning, following Mladenov’s efforts, two trucks carrying 35,000 liters of diesel fuel paid for by Qatar entered the Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom crossing, despite efforts to stymie the move by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
IDF sources believe coverage of events along the border by local news outlets and on social media has encouraged the fiery protests, and the army spokesman is now trying to influence the coverage by limiting the information about Gaza released by the IDF.
On Sunday Gazans broke through the inner border fence and set fire to camouflage netting at an unmanned Israeli army sniper post. On Monday, video clips of the incident were posted on social media, eliciting an IDF spokesman’s response, even though the IDF had not reported it. Before the fire, about 7,000 Gazans turned up near the Israeli border fence in the northern Gaza Strip near Kibbutz Zikim. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 29 Palestinians were wounded on Monday in clashes with the IDF, among them 11 by live fire.
Meanwhile, defense officials were concerned that Sunday’s terror attack in the West Bank industrial zone of Barkan, in which two Israelis were killed, would lead to an outbreak of violence in the West Bank. The army and the Shin Bet security service fear that the diplomatic stalemate between Israel and the PA, and the exclusion of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas from negotiations on a longer-term arrangement in Gaza, might lead to a perceived “successful” terror attack that could usher in a wave of copycat assaults.
Escalation in the West Bank would mean increased friction with Israeli troops in Palestinian cities, bolstering security arrangements at the Jewish settlements, halting security coordination with the PA, and coping with terrorist attacks in the territories and inside Israel proper. Larger numbers of troops would then have to be deployed at the expense of IDF training exercises and courses, and would involve bringing in forces from other fronts.