It’s been five years since the last IDF soldier left the Gaza Strip after the end of Operation Protective Edge. There hasn’t been any fullblown military confrontation between Israel and Hamas since.
The seven-week-long war, launched after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas operatives in the West Bank, claimed the lives of 67 IDF soldiers and six Israeli civilians, as well as over 2,000 Palestinian civilians and militants belonging to Hamas and other Gazan terrorist groups.
It was the longest military operation ever carried out in Gaza by the IDF, and has led to the quietest period in southern Israel in years, allowing Israel to detect and destroy 15 cross-border attack tunnels and complete some 30 km. of the underground and maritime barrier to cut off Hamas tunnels, while strengthening the fence above ground.
Approximately 70,000 Israelis reside in some 50 communities in the Gaza border area and there was a marked increase of people moving to the area over the past five years following Operation Protective Edge in 2016.
But five years later, the situation on the southern front is anything but peaceful. Rockets have been raining down on southern Israel, weekly protests along the fence have led to the burning of hundreds of hectares of land, the first IDF soldier was killed since 2014 and families are beginning to pack their things and leave the area following repeated rounds of violence between Israel and terrorist groups in the Hamasrun coastal enclave.
On the eve of Protective Edge, Hamas was estimated to have between 10,000-13,000 rockets, and it is believed to have succeeded in restocking its arsenal to a number even higher than before.
While almost every year since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 has seen the number of rockets fired towards Israel being in triple digits, 2019 has so far seen the most serious peak of violence between Israel and terrorist groups in the Strip, like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), since the end of the war.
In January, former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot stated that the military has thwarted the smuggling of 15,000-20,000 rockets into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. But despite that, terrorist groups there fired 1,378 rockets in 2018.
The first six months of 2019 alone saw close to 1,000 rockets; one violent round between the two groups saw Hamas and PIJ fire 700 rockets and one rocket-propelled grenade. Five Israeli civilians were killed in that round; the latest died from her wounds on Sunday.
In comparison, a total of 87 projectiles were fired towards Israel in 2017, 46 in 2016, and 27 in 2015. During 2014, which coincided with Operation Protective Edge, Israel was bombarded by 4,897 projectiles. In 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense, Israel was struck by 2,771 rockets. Going back even further, in 2007 Israel was hit by 2,433 projectiles, and in 2008 during Operation Cast Lead, terrorist groups fired 3,557 projectiles.
And that’s just the rockets.
ISRAEL HAS gone to war with Hamas three times since the group seized control of the Strip and the military operations have left the coastal enclave – home to nearly two million people – in ruins, despite millions of dollars in international aid money; minimal reconstruction has been carried out.
The IDF believes that while Hamas is not interested in a long military conflict with Israel, the terrorist group might spark a short period of intense fighting or have militants attack IDF troops along the fence to negotiate a ceasefire with the help of the international community, which would allow the group to improve economic and humanitarian conditions.
For the past year, thousands of Gazans have been protesting along the security fence on a weekly basis, taking part in “Great Return March” demonstrations and calling for an end of the 12-year-long blockade of the Gaza Strip.
During the violent weekly protests, Gazans have been burning tires and hurling stones, grenades and other explosive devices towards IDF troops.
Gazans have also launched countless aerial incendiary devices into southern Israel, causing over 2,000 separate fires resulting in over 3,500 hectares (about 8,500 acres) being burnt. According to the IDF, this has included over 1,300 hectares (about 3,200 acres) of nature reserves, and over 1,100 hectares (about 2,700 acres) of forestry.
According to Gaza’s Palestinian Health Ministry, over 300 Palestinians have been killed and about 17,000 others injured by the IDF since the beginning of the protests.
The first IDF soldier killed since 2014 came during one of the border protests when 20-year-old St.-Sgt. Aviv Levi was struck in the chest by a sniper’s bullet in the area of Kibbutz Kissufim. A week after he was killed, another IDF officer was hit by a sniper in the same area. And in January, another IDF officer was struck on his helmet by sniper fire along the border fence.
Israeli defense officials have repeatedly said that it’s in Israel’s best interest to make sure basic needs are met in Gaza. They have been examining ways to improve the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip in an effort to avoid a violent escalation that could lead to yet another deadly war.
LAST WEEK, Matthias Schmale, the director for the UN Palestinian refugee agency’s (UNRWA’s) operations in Gaza, warned that “the social and economic situation in Gaza is moving from bad to worse.”
A statement by the agency read that 620,000 Gazans live in abject poverty and survive on less than $2 a day, unable to cover their basic food needs.
According to a report by Israel’s KAN public broadcaster, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently approved a series of measures to ease restrictions on the blockaded coastal enclave as part of the understandings with Hamas.
The easing included removing 18 goods that had been blacklisted from entering Gaza; increasing the number of goods merchants are allowed to export to Israel; extending the fishing zone off the Gaza coast to 15 nautical miles; and restoring the supply of fuel to the Palestinian territory.
But will these measures be enough? Probably not.
While Israel continues to work for long-term ceasefire arrangement with Hamas through mediators like Egypt, the remains of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul, two IDF soldiers killed in the 2014 war, are still held by Hamas in the Strip – despite years of their families begging both sides to return their sons for burial.
Two civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, are also still being held by Hamas.
Israel has repeatedly demanded the return of the bodies and the civilians in exchange for a full quiet in Gaza. But Hamas has repeatedly refused the demands, attempting to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations for prisoner releases, and to take advantage of the situation with continued psychological warfare against Israel.
So five years later, the quiet in Israel’s South has run its course. The last year has seen 10 rounds of violent conflict, killing civilians and soldiers on both sides. The humanitarian situation in the Strip is only deteriorating and the patience of both sides for long-term quiet is running low.
It’s only a matter of time until the next war breaks out: Deterrence has been lost.
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