A masked Palestinian boy holds a toy gun as he takes part in a rally marking the 28th anniversary of Hamas' founding.
Once battered by Gazan rockets and shells, the southern border region is experiencing its quietest period in many years.
Beneath the surface, the IDF is taking many steps, most of them covert, to prepare for any surprises Hamas may attempt to spring on the South. It appears as if these steps are contributing to the current calm, for now, by deterring Hamas from risking a massive Israeli response.
The border area between northern Gaza and Israel is under the jurisdiction of the Northern Brigade of the IDF’s Gaza Division, which has not been resting on its laurels during this incident-free time.
On the civilian front, a blossoming is under way. The area has seen record numbers of new residents moving to villages and kibbutzim that were once considered war zones. Farmers work their lands right up to the Gaza border under the watchful eye of the IDF, and a recent festival in the area drew over 100,000 revelers.
Youths spend the weekends in tents on Zikim Beach, which was under constant fire in 2014, when Hamas commandos attempted to land from the sea and massacre Israelis.
The IDF tries not to disrupt this normality with too heavy a presence, but it stealthily inserts its forces into areas that allow it to call upon speedy firepower in incidents.
Nestled between trees in the birch forests of the area, Merkava tanks could lay in wait, out of view but not out of the minds of Hamas, which likely suspects their hidden presence, though not their precise locations. Further back, artillery lies ready to go into action at any time.
On the border, Combat Intelligence units gather information 24 hours a day, feeding it to control centers. Radars and cameras feed the control rooms.
The Northern Brigade maintains a large quantity of firepower at the ready, and often shifts them around to keep its cards close to its chest.
On the other side of the border, in Shejaia, elsewhere in Gaza City, and Jabalya, Hamas men with anti-tank missiles stare back. Hamas armed members in border positions closely watch IDF movements, often armed with AK-47 rifles.
Yet Hamas appears to have reached the understanding that something fundamental has changed since 2014, and that Israel has abandoned the idea of containing any future “drizzle” of rockets from it. That could be why Hamas has not fired a single rocket or shell at Israel since the truce went into effect.
The military wing is using the quiet to rebuild itself, and of course, to rebuild its tunnel network. Israel’s counter-measures to the tunnel threat remain a closely guarded secret, but it appears fair to assume that the IDF is doing everything in its considerable power to develop solutions to tunnels.
Every southern resident who has reported hearing building received a visit from military officials, and so far, after many checks, no digging has been found to occur in such cases.
The smaller jihadist organizations do not stick to the understandings in place between Hamas and Israel. They sometimes fire a rocket at Israel, prompting the IAF to punish Hamas in response. If one of those rockets cause casualties in Israel in the future, that would precipitate a stronger reply from Israel against Hamas, which in turn could lead Hamas to get involved.
Such a development would spell the end of the cease-fire.
Another threat to the truce is the ongoing power struggle under way between Hamas’s military and political wings. The outcome of this struggle could have a direct influence on developments on the ground.
In the meantime, travelers and cyclists continue to flock to the area every weekend, and farmers work their land in peace.
The IDF remain on high, discreet alert, investigating every suspicious activity it detects, multiple times a day. And Hamas appears aware of the changes under way, holding its fire, and rebuilding its capabilities for the day that the quiet comes to an end.
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