All’s quiet on the southern Gaza front — and that’s bad

While the northern portion of the Gaza Strip has seen intermittent rocket launches, regular violent demonstrations and, most recently, an attempted bombing attack against Israeli troops, the southern end of the coastal enclave has been quiet — deceptively quiet, a senior IDF official said recently.

In the southern Gaza Strip and across the border in Egypt lie two different but looming threats: Palestinian terror and the Islamic State.

 

Neither Hamas nor the Islamic State want to go to war with the IDF today, according to army estimates, but that is the direction both are heading for the future, the officer said.

Within the Gaza Strip, Hamas is working tirelessly to construct new tunnels, amass more materiel and train fighters for the next round of violence with Israel. In Sinai, the Islamic State-affiliated group Wilayat Sinaa is currently occupied with a bloody, daily war with Egyptian forces, but they have Israel in their sights.

File: In this Sunday, April 12, 2015 photo, Egyptians gather at the scene following a bombing that struck a main police station in the capital of the northern Sinai province in el-Arish, Egypt. (Muhamed Sabry/AP)

In this Sunday, April 12, 2015 photo, Egyptians gather at the scene following a bombing that struck a main police station in the capital of the northern Sinai province in el-Arish, Egypt. (Muhamed Sabry/AP)

The threat from Islamic State is not imminent — it’s not going to necessarily happen “tomorrow or next year,” the officer said — but the army believes that the terrorist groups will eventually move against Israel, if Egypt does not succeed in defeating them first.

In Gaza, the situation is more complicated. It is easy to consider the Gaza Strip as one unified body ruled by Hamas, but within the 365 square kilometers (141 sq. mi.) region, there are a variety of groups, each with its own aim and plans to achieve it.

Though Hamas may want to wait until it is adequately prepared before taking on the IDF, the more radical and often Iran-supported Salafist groups are chomping at the bit to renew hostilities with Israel.

Nearly every attack against Israel by these groups, however, results in an IDF counterstrike against Hamas, which Israel holds responsible for any violence emanating from the coastal enclave. Hamas, a sworn enemy of the Jewish state, is therefore left with the unusual task of preventing those groups from carrying out attacks against Israel.

Breaking up the boredom

In the northern and central Gaza Strip, across the border from Israel’s Sha’ar Hanegev communities, Palestinian terror groups run wild, firing rockets and planting IEDs along the border fence, as Israel saw on Wednesday morning.

But in the south, Hamas commanders maintain better discipline over the more extreme Salafist groups, keeping such attacks to a minimum.

That discipline in the south translates into fewer small-scale skirmishes with the IDF and fewer rockets launched against the Israeli communities nearby, notably Sufa and Holit, which enjoy more quiet than their neighbors in Sha’ar Hanegev.

But it also means that there are more preparations for future battles with the Jewish state, in the form of intelligence gathering and tunnel construction, the officer said.

Palestinian men work at the entrance of a tunnel, used for smuggling supplies between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, after being flooded with seawater by Egyptian army, in Rafah in southern Gaza, on October 1, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

Palestinian men work at the entrance of a tunnel, used for smuggling supplies between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, after being flooded with seawater by Egyptian army, in Rafah in southern Gaza, on October 1, 2015. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

A senior Hamas member, Rahman al-Mubashar, was killed late last month when a tunnel east of Khan Younis, in which he was working, collapsed, the terror group announced last month. Given the Palestinian city’s location near the frontier with Israel, the statement could have been a reference to a tunnel nearing or in Israeli territory.

The quiet in the southern end of Gaza is meant to “distract us and lull us to sleep,” the officer said, to trick the IDF into security lapses.

The soldiers serving at Israel’s westernmost point face multiple threats from both Gaza and Egypt, sitting at the meeting point of the three territories. But unlike their comrades guarding the northern Gaza border and Israel’s borders with Lebanon and Syria, who face regular threats, the troops stationed in southern Gaza have little to naturally keep them alert.

The IDF believes that it is being watched and being intentionally bored to distraction, forcing commanders in the field to keep their soldiers on their toes with frequent exercises.

File. An IDF exercise near the Gaza Border on November 19, 2014. (Amit Shechter/IDF Spokesperson's Unit/Flickr)

File. An IDF exercise near the Gaza Border on November 19, 2014. (Amit Shechter/IDF Spokesperson’s Unit/Flickr)

In addition, Golani Brigade soldiers stationed along southern Gaza carry out patrols along the border in order to prevent terrorists from entering Israeli territory and carrying out attacks, the officer said.

“It’s all about defense, defense, defense,” he said.

This entails monitoring the border fence for IEDs or evidence that someone crossed the border illegally, and also working with intelligence and combat engineering to identify possible attempts to tunnel into Israel.

While infiltration into Israel has become less of a problem of late, the officer said, soldiers are still kept busy by smuggling attempts along the Egyptian border, as well as African migrants attempting to enter the country through the Sinai.

The smuggling itself “doesn’t really interest us,” the officer said, though it does reveal the lapses in Israeli security that could be exploited by terrorists.

The soldiers, some of whom served in Gaza during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, are also partially responsible for the security of the Kerem Shalom Crossing, through which hundreds of tractor trailers loaded with food and aid travel into Gaza almost every day.

Goods and medical supplies being transferred to the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, July 19, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson)

Goods and medical supplies being transferred to the Gaza Strip through the Kerem Shalom Crossing, July 19, 2014. (IDF Spokesperson)

The Defense Ministry handles the majority of the security at the crossing, inspecting trucks coming through for contraband and guarding the complex itself while it is in operation. But the IDF, as the group ultimately responsibility for the area, checks the complex each morning before the trucks begin rolling through, the officer said.

In recent years, the crossing has been shot at with guns and rocket fire, leading Israel to shut the border and earning the Palestinians international sympathy over the lack of goods flowing in, the officer said.

Then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz examines the wreckage of an armored car that rammed through the border fence between Israel and Egypt near the Kerem Hashalom Crossing on August 6, 2012. (Gal Ashuach/IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

Then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz examines the wreckage of an armored car that rammed through the border fence between Israel and Egypt near the Kerem Hashalom Crossing on August 6, 2012. (Gal Ashuach/IDF Spokesperson’s Unit)

Besides the occasional small weapons fire, the crossing, which sits near the Egyptian border, also came under serious attack in August 2012, when a group of terrorists from Sinai rammed an armored car through the border fence with Egypt, after attacking an Egyptian army installation.

They made it approximately two kilometers (1.25 miles) into Israel and toward Kerem Shalom before Israeli aircraft destroyed the vehicle.

The officer says he won’t allow such an attack to happen again.

“If I think the road is under threat, I’ll just put a tank in that area so that they know they will be stopped,” he said.

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