A year after the end of Operation Pillar of Defense, IDF field intelligence units continue to keep a close eye on Hamas in Gaza, mapping out the terror regime’s assets and watching its attempts to rebuild itself after a brief yet bruising clash with Israel in 2012.
Lt.-Col. Tomer, commander of Battalion 414 of the Combat Intelligence Collection, stationed along the Gaza border under the IDF’s Southern Command, told The Jerusalem Post of how his forces peer deep into the world of Hamas, and get ready for when the calm will be shattered.
“We’re known as Gaza’s big brother. We see everything,” Tomer said this week. “We’re seeing Hamas getting stronger, and preparing itself. We’re ready for any scenario, and are looking at the day after [the cease-fire ends],” Tomer added.
The companies that make up Tomer’s battalion are logging a range of Hamas activities, including its force-building efforts, and locations of enemy position – information that will prove vital in any future conflict.
“We see them watching us.
There’s no doubt we’re stronger than them in this field [intelligence], but they are competitors,” Tomer said.
He described a sort of “behind-the-scenes competition” between his forces and Hamas’s own field intelligence cells.
“It goes on 24/7, around the clock. We ensure that no one approaches the security fence, and guard the border. We’re on the lookout for attempts to plant bombs, and we’re on the alert for the big threat of tunnel digging,” Tomer said.
The Southern Command has been preoccupied with Hamas’s large-scale tunnel construction, and last month uncovered a 1.7-kilometer-long attack tunnel leading from Khan Yunis into Israel, complete with an electrical supply and phone lines.
During work to demolish the tunnel on November second, a Hamas bomb went off, wounding six soldiers. The IDF killed two members of a terror cell spying on the demolition work, which included a gunman armed with an anti-tank missile, and killed three senior Hamas members in an air strike on the tunnel’s entrance in Gaza.
The incident represented one of the most serious military encounters with Hamas since the cease-fire began last November.
“What controls our schedule is reality. Sometimes, night turns into day. Every day, we begin from scratch. If we see fog at night, we’ll stay up all night to make sure no one’s sneaking past. In the morning, we evaluate the sector, look for ways to improve, and how to cooperate with other IDF forces,” he said. “We hold evaluations all the time.”
Tomer’s soldiers are equipped with a range of surveillance tools, including electro-optical systems, high-performance binoculars, radar, night-time thermal imaging, and surveillance balloons floating over the border region that are visible to anyone driving in Israeli border districts such as Eshkol.
In addition to tunnels, they’re on the lookout for snipers, planted explosives and other “surprises” Gazan terror cells prepare for the IDF.
One of Tomer’s companies spends days in the field on covert border intelligence-gathering missions, and its soldiers are heavily camouflaged.
“They’re the unseen, and can spend hours in one location,” he said.
Asked to evaluate Hamas’s efforts to repair its offensive guerrilla and rocket capabilities since Operation Pillar of Defense, Tomer said new regional realities were hampering Hamas’s abilities to recuperate.
“I don’t think Hamas is as strong as it was. It is trying to recuperate. When we look at Hamas we see that they’re in a state of rivalry with Egypt that affects its economic reality and we see that they fell out with Iran over the fighting in Syria. It is getting stronger, but not at the same speed as in the past,” he said.
During peacetime, visual intelligence gathered by Tomer is passed on to Military Intelligence, but during hostilities, Tomer must also pass on the information in real time and securely to a range of IDF ground forces and the Air Force to facilitate the destruction of terrorist targets.
Another company in the Battalion 414 consists of female lookouts in a control room who operate the Sea-Shoot remotely operated weapons system placed along the border.
“They need experience, mental strength, and of course professionalism,” Tomer said.
“They have to know how to operate the system, and how take out terrorists who come to the fence with the intention of doing harm.”