Southern Israel is experiencing its calmest period in 15 years, as Hamas continues to recover from the damage it sustained from Operation Protective Edge two summers ago.
Yet the quiet is deceptive, and what is visible to the eye along the border is less telling than the low-profile preparations for future hostilities that are being made on both sides of the frontier.
Hidden from view, amid multi-story buildings of northern Gaza, Hamas resumed construction of a network of attack tunnels aimed at getting terrorists into Israel in any future conflict. It has filled buildings in neighborhoods such as eastern Gaza City’s Shejaia, the scene of intense combat in 2014, with new weapons and lookouts, and it has resumed rocket production, relying on Iranian funding and know-how.
On the Israeli side, in an area of green farming districts that surround the town of Sderot, the IDF’s Northern Gaza Brigade is employing a new deployment pattern, based on the idea of territorial defense, rather than mere border patrols.
The goal is to respond very rapidly to any surprise attack from Gaza, and gain control of the situation, thereby preventing Hamas cells from infiltrating Israeli communities, where they could go on killing sprees, or carry out kidnappings.
Under the new concept, the army has redeployed infantry, armored, artillery and intelligence units, with many now hidden from view, and placed in areas that offer good control of the area. They are largely out of sight, but close to the border, ready to respond to Hamas surprises with surprises of their own.
Additionally, the army constructed new dirt roads that are designed to provide warning of cross-border intrusions through the appearance of footprints. It has begun operating tunnel detection systems on the border with northern Gaza. These measures are joined by a network of radar and camera sensors on top of masts that feed control rooms with information, 24 hours a day. Unmanned IDF machine gun posts, remotely controlled by operators, can also respond to incidents.
The IDF has begun making highly selective use of patrols along routes such as the Burma Road on the border with northern Gaza. Armored vehicles travel in groups, and any unnecessary border presence that would present a vulnerable target is forbidden.
Large mounds have been erected to provide protection to IDF units stationed in area.
Spread throughout the area, but hidden from view, are IDF platforms that can instantly deploy heavy fire, such as tanks and artillery, lie in wait.
Infantry and Combat Intelligence Collection units operate around the border, protecting the villages and towns on the Israeli side, like Sderot, Kfar Aza, Netiv Ha’asara and Miflasim. The electronic sensor border fence will soon be joined by a tall physical fence, which will resemble the barrier constructed on the border with Egypt.
Close cooperation between the Northern Gaza Brigade and the Israel Navy has become a key feature of security in the area. Navy patrol and missile boats help monitor suspicious movements in Gaza, and respond to incidents, offering assistance from the nearby sea when needed.
Despite the tensions, quiet continues to reign, and farming regions have made a recovery since the Gaza conflict a year and a half ago, when their green fields turned into dusty tank and armored personnel carrier zones, peppered by non-stop Hamas rocket and mortar attacks.
That military traffic is gone now, as the army focuses on allowing farmers to pursue their livelihoods and tries to get out of their way, while securing them and their homes.
Hamas, for its part, has set up a series of border guard posts, complete with uniformed guards armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
On the Gazan side, there are motorcycle patrols by “civilians,” and occasionally, by groups of young Gazan men with cages pretending to capture wild birds, right near the border. They all are designed to keep an eye on IDF movements.
Incidents of border riots by Gazans have decreased steeply in recent weeks, partly due to the IDF’s attempt to prevent them from escalating into a wider deterioration, through the selective use of fire when responding to mobs that approach the border.
Meanwhile, around 900 trucks, carrying all manner of goods, from food to medicine to reconstruction material, enter southern Gaza through the Kerem Shalom crossing each day.
It appears that Hamas has no wish to reignite a conflict at this time, but the volatile history of this area teaches that Hamas’s military wing could change its mind on a whim.