Monday's destruction by the Israeli army of a tunnel dug by Islamic Jihad into Israeli territory from the Gaza Strip is raising tensions along the border to a level unseen since the end of Operation Protective Edge in August 2014.
The fact that at least seven Palestinian militants were killed in the operation, including senior commanders of Islamic Jihad (and a Hamas commander), could spur the extremist group to retaliate.
During the evening and through the night, considerable efforts were being made through Egyptian mediators to calm the situation. But the Israeli army is preparing for the possibility of rocket fire on Gaza border communities, if not further north. The critical hours will be on Tuesday morning, when people go off to work and school.
According to reports from Gaza, two of those killed were the commander of the Islamic Jihad central district brigade and his deputy. Some of the dead were killed when they entered the tunnel to try to rescue people after the Israeli attack, apparently suffocated by smoke, dust or possibly toxic fumes. Military sources denied that the operation was an assassination attempt on senior terror operatives and said no toxic substance was streamed into the tunnel after it was blown up.
But even if the major hit was coincidental and not the result of intelligence information, it seems that the Israeli operation succeeded beyond expectations.
The many casualties are liable to spur the Palestinians to respond in a way that could escalate the tension or impact on the intra-Palestinian rapprochement.
The attack tunnel was recently discovered, not far from the border fence, some 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from Kibbutz Kissufim. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Knesset Monday afternoon that the tunnel was found “due to a significant technological breakthrough.” The army did not elaborate on how the tunnel was destroyed. Palestinian sources, however, say it was bombed by the Israel Air Force.
Lieberman said Israel has no interest in an escalation, but added that despite the reconciliation between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, “The Strip is still the terror kingdom.”
Israel Defense Forces Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis also told reporters – in a message that seemed coordinated with political leaders – that Israel wasn’t seeking an escalation, and that the army has no plans to increase tensions along the Gaza border.
Manelis added that the tunnel was destroyed at this time for operational reasons. It did not pose an immediate threat to the security of the Israelis living near the border, he said, but the fact it was dug constituted “a gross violation of Israeli sovereignty” that Israel had no intention of permitting.
The IDF spokesman stressed that Israel sees the Hamas regime as exclusively responsible for anything happening in the Strip, and assumes that its leaders were aware of the tunnel.
The decision to blow up the tunnel was made after recent consultations by government and security officials. The timing is considered sensitive for two reasons: the reconciliation agreement between Hamas and the PA, which was achieved through Egyptian mediation; and the construction of the Israeli anti-tunnel barrier along the border with the Gaza Strip, which is being worked on north of the site of the tunnel.
Although the Israeli government has expressed official disapproval of the reconciliation between the PA and Hamas, it does not want to appear to be actively sabotaging the agreement because of its own close relations with Egypt.
A worsening of the security situation between Israel and Hamas could lead to the collapse of the intra-Palestinian understandings. On Wednesday, as part of the agreement, Egypt is supposed to reopen its Rafah crossing with Gaza, with members of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ presidential guard present for the first time.
Hamas very much needs this achievement, but to get there it will need to restrain Islamic Jihad and prevent it from acting.
Any escalation with Israel now will highlight the flaws in the reconciliation agreement, which avoided dealing with dismantling the “weapons of the resistance” – from the Hamas-Islamic Jihad tunnels to the rockets that both groups possess.
Islamic Jihad, as opposed to Hamas, isn’t even a signatory to the reconciliation agreement, and it has 12,000 fighters and thousands of rockets.
At the same time, Israel will need nearly a year to finish building the barrier, which is meant to block the construction of additional tunnels and use sensors to identify existing tunnels or tunnels in the process of being dug.
Before the tunnel was blown up, the IDF deployed Iron Dome batteries in the south and took other security measures. Security officials said Monday that Israel is prepared for any eventuality, and that it is still too early to assess how Hamas or Islamic Jihad will respond.
The resolute Israeli position combines with the tension on the northern border, particularly regarding Iran’s entrenchment in southern Syria. Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have publicly warned on several occasions that Israel will not allow Iran to expand its military foothold in Syria, and certainly will not allow Shi’ite militias that operate under its influence, or Hezbollah, to get close to the border between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights.
What happened Monday is pretty similar to the way things started to spiral in 2014. In retrospect, the IDF Military Intelligence branch believes the clash three years ago stemmed from a series of misunderstandings and erroneous calculations by both sides, neither of which was aiming for such a broad confrontation. If the present situation deteriorates further, Israel could find itself facing a repeat of the 2014 scenario.
Israel, as it did then, has enough good tactical reasons to do what it is doing. What it’s missing with regard to Gaza is a strategy. The years-long delay in approving projects that would help alleviate the enormous civilian distress in the Strip also contributes to the possibility that another eruption will occur in the end.