CiF Watch Special Report: Increasing tensions along Israel’s southern border

As the second anniversary of Operation Cast Lead approaches, the past few days have seen increasing tension along the international border between Israel and the Gaza Strip due to a rise in terror attacks both upon the IDF patrols along the border and upon civilians living in the surrounding area.

As we know from past experience, despite the fact that there are more foreign correspondents per capita in Israel than anywhere else in the world, such attacks are largely ignored by the Western media, including the Guardian, and therefore the context for Israeli actions aimed at containing terrorist activity is often missing from subsequent reports.

Here at CiF Watch, we consider one of our aims to be to supply our audience with factual background information which will provide a comprehensive understanding of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the various terrorist groups functioning in the region, and thus enable our readers to make informed comment on media forums. With that aim in mind, earlier today I took part in a briefing by a senior IDF official regarding the current situation in the south, which readers will hopefully find both interesting and useful.

The officer first gave an overview of the events of the past few days, pointing out the increase in terror attacks against IDF patrols and civilians in the area. According to him, the deterrent achieved as a result of Operation Cast Lead two years ago is still in effect, but one can also identify a change in the overall situation.

Terrorist groups such as the Islamic Jihad, which up to now were not operational, have linked up with Hamas, which has also been largely dormant on the terror front since January 2009, and the result is more attacks upon IDF patrols along the international border, both by means of snipers and anti-tank rockets. In addition, an increased number of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are being laid along the fence which marks the border and a rising number of mortar attacks both on the IDF and civilians living in the communities surrounding the border with the Gaza Strip are being experienced, together with rockets being launched towards longer range targets.

The official pointed out that Hamas is perfectly capable of both maintaining peace itself and forcing other organisations to do so if it wishes, but that circumstances have now changed and that Hamas is allowing and encouraging attacks by other groups, as well as participating in attacks itself. He mentioned that Sinai has become a site of Hamas activity with infiltration over the border into Israel being attempted as well as rocket attacks (two within the last month) being launched from there. It is considered that this is a deliberate tactic used by Hamas in order to try to avoid retaliation upon Gaza itself and avoid the danger of escalation. The IDF is currently on high alert, and although trying to avoid escalation, retaliates against attacks on the unwritten ceasefire agreements.

As for the humanitarian situation in Gaza, there are no problems with the supply of gas, water, electricity or fuel and the border crossings are open and working. In addition, the crossing at Rafiah is open and tens of thousands of Gaza residents have used it to travel via Egypt; thus there is no negative change in Gaza from a humanitarian perspective. Palestinian and international organisations are engaged in projects in the fields of health, education, sewerage and other infrastructure and the IDF, whilst not involved in the projects themselves, facilitates and co-ordinates with them.

The official pointed out that whilst Israel is keen to support projects which help to improve the lives of the innocent civilians suffering because of Hamas policies, there have been instances in which Hamas has interfered with such projects and commandeered goods such as ambulances for terror purposes.  In addition, it is known that Hamas has appropriated some of the cement which was allowed into the Strip for reconstruction of civilian housing  – such as the building of 150 apartments recently completed in Khan Yunis and the two or three similar projects still ongoing – in order to build Hamas posts, camps, training facilities and underground tunnels.  Cement is also being brought in through the 300 or so active smuggling tunnels. Efforts are being made to ensure proper control by the international NGOs involved in the various reconstruction projects so that cement and metal will be used for the benefit of the local civilian population rather than upgrading Hamas’ terrorist capabilities.

When asked to cite the possible reasons for the recent change in the status quo, the officer indicated several factors.

First, he pointed out that the worldwide attention which was focused on Gaza during and after Operation Cast Lead is waning – a situation which Hamas wants to avoid.

Second, both Hamas and Hizbollah are feeling more confident and capable of late and their political leaders are more willing to respond positively to the pressure put upon them by their own armed factions to resume terror attacks.

Another reason is internal; no progress is being made as regards reconciliation with the Palestinian Authority and tensions with Egypt have risen. In addition, Hamas sees the ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as a threat and is trying to effect a change in the situation in order to make itself more relevant.

The Islamic Jihad –some factions of which have links with Al Qaida, though not all –  has been active in the Gaza Strip for the past 18 months or so, but up to now its activity has been contained and restrained by Hamas. This has resulted in political pressure on Hamas on the grounds that “Hamas is not fighting the Jews”.

Finally, the seemingly banal factor of the weather is also an explanation for the increased number of attacks because the terrorists find it easier to get closer to the fence when visibility is reduced by fog and rain. The officer pointed out that the use of civilians as cover for planting IEDs along the border fence has increased, with agricultural workers and flocks of sheep being used for concealment.

According to the officer, Hamas is now better armed than it was two years ago, both in terms of the quantity of arms and their capabilities. Not only does it have more weapons, but it also has more activists. These more efficient arms have been supplied by Iran and smuggled into Gaza via Africa and Sinai. There is also evidence of Hizbollah involvement in the re-arming of Hamas, again with weapons supplied by Iran.

In addition, the domestic capability for arms manufacture within the Gaza Strip has improved, with much of the technical know-how coming from Iran. Whilst it is known that there are some Iranian experts in the fields of explosives and anti-aircraft missiles present in the Gaza Strip, the majority of the increased technical capability comes as a result of Hamas activists travelling via the Rafiah crossing to Syria, Lebanon or Iran for training.

Any possible conflict which could result from the potential escalation would be different in character from Operation Cast Lead – in the estimation of the official giving the briefing – due to the fact that Hamas is now in possession of better and more weaponry. He stressed that the IDF is eager to avoid any escalation of the situation, but is of course also preparing for that eventuality.

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