As Israel’s April 9 election approaches, tension is mounting on the Palestinian front, with ramming attacks in the West Bank and an increase of violence along the border with the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Almost a year after Palestinians first began demonstrating along the Gaza border fence as part of the so-called “Great March of Return,” Israel’s military intelligence has warned of the high risk of military escalation.
The ongoing Great March of Return protests began last March 30
and have seen hundreds of thousands of Gazans violently demonstrating along the security fence with Israel, demanding an end to the 12-year-long blockade of the coastal enclave.
Israeli defense officials 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 another deadly war.
But despite both sides not being interested in another war, a continued deterioration of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure will continue to put pressure on Hamas, which could lead to another violent clash with Israel.
Hamas has in the past provoked confrontation with Israel to detract from internal issues. However, one of Hamas’s primary fears is that the people of Gaza will one day rise up against it, which will lead to its fall from power and the return of the Palestinian Authority to the Strip.
According to the IDF, more than half a million people have attended the protests in total since they began
, with the number of Palestinians congregating at points along the border ranging between several thousand to 45,000 each day.
In the month leading up to the anniversary, there has been a marked increase of Hamas-led violence along the border, both during the day and at night, with explosive balloons and improvised explosive devices hurled at troops or placed on the fence.
In response, Israel has increased strikes on Hamas outposts, because in Gaza the equation is simple: explosive aerial devices are answered by strikes.
On Monday, IDF combat helicopters struck two Hamas positions in southern Gaza in response to several explosive balloons which had been launched from the blockaded enclave. It was the fourth retaliatory air strike against the group in three days.
Also on Monday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh told reporters, “If ‘the occupation’ [Israel] or Netanyahu think of an adventure, I think they will pay the price that will send them away. We do not fear any adventures from Netanyahu towards Gaza… The resistance has its eyes open.”
In response to the violence, Israel briefly closed the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza
, the coastal enclave’s main commercial and humanitarian crossing. All goods, save for fuel, will not be allowed to enter.
Closure of the crossing is often seen as an initial step toward an Israeli response to Gaza violence.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who was recently sworn in as the military’s top officer, has prioritized the southern front as one which could explode into war at any moment.
As one of his first visits as chief of staff, Kochavi went to the Southern Command
and met with senior officers and approved operational plans for war, including setting up a centralized administrative unit to prepare a list of potential targets in Gaza in case a war should break out.
In response to the protests, the IDF has “substantially” increased its forces deployed on the Gaza border and all troops have undergone “specially developed trainings designed to replicate the expected elements of the Gaza border events.” Israel has also stationed counterterrorism forces in communities along the Gaza border in order to rapidly respond to any infiltration or military attacks.
The IDF has constructed sand berms to provide defenses for IDF forces along the border, and also dug long trenches and laid barbed wire behind these berms in an attempt to delay crowds and vehicles from reaching Israeli civilian communities if a large-scale infiltration succeeds.
Hamas’s leader in the Gaza Strip, Yayha Sinwar, has become increasingly more pragmatic as he struggles to cope with the dire humanitarian situation in the enclave and is trying to avoid full-scale war with Israel.
But the ruthless hardliner is also building up the military capabilities of Hamas for when the next confrontation explodes. He is continuing to build terrorist cells in the West Bank to carry out attacks against Israelis while at the same time undermining the rule of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Several months ago, former IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned that there was a high probability of escalation in the West Bank. In November, Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) director Nadav Argaman echoed Eisenkot’s warning, saying the relative calm in the area was “deceptive” as “Hamas is trying very hard to carry out terrorist attacks in and from Judea and Samaria.”
In Argaman’s November briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, he said that security forces have thwarted 480 terror attacks in the West Bank
, including 219 attacks planned by Hamas cells and 190 planned by lone wolves.
According to data released by the Shin Bet, there has been a steady increase of attacks in the West Bank and Jerusalem over the last several months. In October, there were a total of 109 attacks, compared to 116 in November, 138 in December and 138 in January 2019.
On Monday, an IDF officer and Border Police soldier were wounded after three Palestinians rammed their car into troops outside a West Bank village near Ramallah
. The officer, a company commander in the Kfir Brigade, was seriously wounded and was evacuated to Tel Hashomer Hospital in serious but stable condition.
While the economic situation is much better in the West Bank compared to the Gaza Strip, it has gotten much worse since US President Donald Trump’s administration stopped funding for the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA.
In mid-February, Israel’s defense cabinet also began withholding Palestinian tax funds and deducted some NIS 500 million ($138m.)
from the total sum that is still due to be delivered to the PA. Defense officials believe that the funds provided by Israel were earmarked for the families of Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli prisons.
There are also tensions between Israeli officials and Palestinians in prison, after Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan installed disrupters to garble conversations that prisoners have on smuggled cellphones. With violent incidents already having broken out between wardens and inmates over the issue, it is possible that the issue could spill over onto the Palestinian street.
In Jerusalem, tensions are also high surrounding the decision of the Waqf – the Muslim custodian of the Temple Mount – to reopen the Bab el-Rahma or Golden Gate
which had been closed by Israel since 2003.
In late February, dozens of Palestinians clashed with Israeli police as they forced their way through the gate, led by Waqf officials, to hold prayers. According to a report in Haaretz
, Waqf officials have now called for mass protests prayers every Friday by the entrance to the site, similar to the mass protest prayers seen after Israel installed metal detectors at the site
following a deadly terror attack in 2017.
While neither side wants conflict to break out, all the components for a violent explosion between Israel and the Palestinians are in place.
All it would take is a small miscalculation.
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