The fast pace of security-related events continues, even if the arena changes. After last Saturday’s fighting between the Israel Air Force and Iranian and Syrian forces on the northern front, this Saturday saw a serious incident on the Gaza border when four soldiers were wounded by an explosive device near the border fence. As in the round in the north, it seems likely that the two sides will avoid a general escalation.
The explosive device was apparently placed during demonstrations along the fence Friday. The army’s preliminary investigation shows that the device was concealed inside a flagpole put up next to the Palestinian side of the fence.
Bomb-disposal experts from the Engineering Corps had come to the area to ensure that there were no explosives, and if they found one, to neutralize it. The sappers were guarded by Golani Brigade soldiers. But something went wrong and the device exploded when the sappers approached it. Four soldiers were wounded, including a Golani company commander and an Engineering Corps officer. This is the worst incident on the Gaza border since the last Gaza war ended in August 2014.
As on the previous Saturday in the north, the possibility of error by the soldiers will have to be investigated. Overconfidence or insufficient attention to safety procedures may have played a role, creating a weak point the other side took advantage of. The people who put up the flag apparently knew the army’s procedure for checking suspicious points, and the bomb exploded while the object was being examined.
The Popular Resistance Committee, a veteran Gaza faction with complex ties to the Hamas government in Gaza, claimed responsibility for the attack. In recent years the Popular Resistance Committees have been in touch with extreme Salafi groups, which the army calls rogue groups and which challenge the government in Gaza.
Another possibility is that the attack was perpetrated by Islamic Jihad as payback for the Israeli army’s demolition of a tunnel that killed 12 Islamic Jihad and Hamas operatives in October.
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In any case, Israel holds Hamas doubly responsible for the attack. First, it claims that Hamas rules the Gaza Strip and therefore is responsible for preventing any violence stemming from there. Second, it notes that the explosion came in connection with the demonstrations that take place Fridays along the fence between Gaza and Israel.
Hamas remotely controls these demonstrations, which appear to be spontaneous and which have taken place almost every weekend since the wave of knife attacks and car-rammings in the West Bank began in October 2015. The demonstrations are used to express support for attacks against Israel, but also for Gazans to let off steam as conditions worsen in the Strip.
Israeli intelligence says it has identified a modus operandi by the Hamas government: maintaining popular protest against Israel at the border fence while actively encouraging attacks in the West Bank, without spilling over into terror in Gaza – and especially avoiding another round of fighting.
In many cases, Palestinians try to damage the fence or even cross it into Israel during these demonstrations. In one incident in October 2015, seven Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli-army fire when they were trying to damage the fence. In other cases, the army has fired both rubber-coated steel bullets and regular bullets at protesters near the fence. That’s apparently how a protester, a double amputee, was killed two months ago.
The dilemma of the Israeli army’s top brass is clear. If force is used to keep Palestinians away from the fence, Palestinians will be killed and tensions might escalate. If the army comes to terms with Palestinians approaching the fence, terror attacks in conjunction with the demonstrations might result. It’s likely that on Friday the army will apply much harsher measures to prevent similar attacks.
Israel responded harshly to the attack Saturday to signal to Hamas that it will not accept more aggression. But the basic situation in Gaza remains the same. The north is a greater security priority (war there would be more dangerous and costly), and in Gaza, Israel has no clear strategic goals if there’s a war. Israel is playing for time when it comes to the Strip, in an attempt to complete construction of the tunnel barrier before another escalation happens.
In the background is a time bomb – worsening conditions in Gaza. Hamas’ distress coupled with that of Gaza’s inhabitants (undrinkable water, poor sanitation, limited electricity, high unemployment), brings the possibility of a clash closer, even though neither side wants one. A month ago, after dozens of rockets and mortar shells were fired at the Negev by Salafi groups, Hamas came to its senses and stopped the fire. If it doesn’t take similar steps now, the danger of war will loom once again.