The Israeli security forces' display of the wide range of weapons captured as booty after the killing of four Palestinians who had infiltrated the Israel-Gaza border is reminiscent of infiltration attempts from southern Lebanon two decades ago. It was an organized and relatively well-equipped squad, on its way to inflict significant damage, including infiltration, a massacre at a nearby community and perhaps a kidnapping.
Golani Brigade forces, which assumed responsibility for the Gaza border a few weeks ago, are going through a rough patch. This is the third serious incident in the central Gaza sector they are in charge of, held by the brigade’s Battalion 12.
In the first incident, its soldiers mistakenly shot dead an armed Hamas activist belonging to its restraining forces, charged with preventing serious clashes along the border. Israel issued a clarification in this case, admitting to its mistake in order to calm things down. A week later, an armed operative breached the border fence, managing to wound three soldiers before being shot dead.
This time, the response was quick and effective. Spotters identified the armed squad and a Golani force headed by a company commander killed the four armed men, with no casualties on the Israeli side. This was a result of cumulative experience gained through years of fighting, as well as the result of tactical deployment lessons learned by the Gaza Division following previous incidents. No less important is the fact that Israeli civilian life was not disrupted this time, and communities were not instructed to be on alert.
According to reports from Gaza, the squad was unusual in its composition. All four were from a village on the outskirts of the city of Deir Al-Balah, formerly active in the military wing of Hamas. They had been led by one of them, an extremist Salafist. In addition, the gunman killed in the Gaza border infiltration attack last week had previously belonged to the Hamas restraining force assigned with keeping Palestinians away from the fence during weekly protests. He had wished to avenge the killing of his brother by IDF fire.
The nature of the squad may reflect a growing frustration among relatively young operatives in Hamas’s military wing, stemming from public criticism in the Gaza Strip over the fact that Hamas is no longer committed to resistance to Israeli occupation and is suppressing the operations of smaller factions. It shows that there is a blurry distinction between Hamas’s restraining force, its military wing and rogue factions.
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There is no reasoned ideology underlying the deployment of the restraining forces. Hamas simply wishes to control developments and not be drawn into a war initiated by an independent faction. But it has been proven that members of the restraining force may themselves undertake the attacks, utilizing their familiarity with the area. This is similar to the blurry distinction between members of the Palestinian Authority’s Force 17 and Fatah terrorist squads in the West Bank during the second intifada.
The latest incident is bad news for Hamas since it indicated some lack of control in Gaza. This is why strange excuses and conflicting versions were heard. And yet, the question remains: Did Hamas leaders, headed by Yahya Sinwar, not encourage the infiltration by remote control or by a wink and nod, in order to let off some steam among Hamas activists. At least according to Israeli intelligence, Hamas is still not interested in wide scale escalation but is rather in interested in agreements with Israel to advance the reconstruction of Gaza’s infrastructure.
In the absence of casualties, and in light of the evident disinterest Benjamin Netanyahu has in any military confrontation in Gaza, it’s reasonable to assume that Israel will again show restraint following this latest incident. However, there is a worrisome accumulation of events in recent weeks, all directly or indirectly connected to Hamas: The murder of soldier Dvir Sorek in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the West Bank, the arrest of a Hamas squad from Hebron which had been preparing to detonate an explosive device in Jerusalem, and the incidents along the Gaza border. These attest to increased Hamas activity on all fronts. In the West Bank, this is done under its authority and with its blessing. In Gaza, the policy is less clear.
The rapid apprehension of the soldier’s murderers, reported on Friday, reflects intense efforts by Israeli security forces, headed by the Shin Bet. The assailants had identified an unarmed young man walking on a road leading to a settlement and stabbed him to death before quickly fleeing the scene. One of the two arrested men belongs to Hamas. The other has no organizational affiliation. This kind of incident does not require instructions from headquarters in Gaza. Activists on the ground know what’s expected of them and act accordingly.
The next focus of friction could be in Jerusalem, possibly on Sunday. The police, on orders from higher political echelons, are probably going to allow Jewish visitors to enter the Temple Mount on Tisha B’Av, the day of fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple. This year, the day coincides with Eid al-Ahda, the Muslim Festival of the Sacrifice. There were calls in East Jerusalem for massive opposition to Jewish presence on the Mount, which necessitates heavy police presence in case of violent clashes. These are, again, fragile days.