Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi with soldier in damaged building in 2014..
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Sirens warning of rocket launches that sounded in a number of towns surrounding the Gaza Strip last week turned out to be false alarms. And the IDF has made it clear that presently there is little risk of attacks on the South. One senior officer from Southern Command even volunteered in a recent briefing with military correspondents that “the assessment right now is that there is not going to be an escalation of hostilities on the southern border in the near future and that the current situation will continue.”
Still, residents in the Gaza periphery are nervous.
Foreign news services reported that the IDF operated inside the Gaza Strip with bulldozers. And the same senior officer from Southern Command made it clear that while the IDF has significantly improved its capabilities since 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, Hamas has been busy with its own preparations and is using the current quiet to build up its offensive capabilities.
According to the senior IDF officer, a number of factors could lead to the renewal of fighting in the South: Israel or Hamas might wrongly read the situation because of a specific incident or declaration; Hamas might succeed in carrying out a major terrorist attack or kidnapping in the West Bank (this is what led to the conflagration in 2014); Palestinians might stage demonstrations against the blockade of Gaza Strip imposed by Egypt and Israel and rise up against it (on Friday the IDF shot three Palestinian rioters who approached the security border).
Meanwhile, MK Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warned that though the deterrence put in place in the wake of Operation Protective Edge was still holding up, Hamas was gaining strength.
Speaking on Channel 2 on Saturday, Hanegbi said the IDF was prepared for all possibilities, including grave ones, regarding a possible new conflict with Hamas.
Another negative development is the increasing strength of Hamas’s military wing, Izzadin Kassam, at the expense of the political wing, which is considered more pragmatic if not more moderate.
Unfortunately, there are no signs that the Palestinian public – whether in the West Bank or in Gaza – has become more moderate. Hamas enjoys widespread popularity on the Palestinian street. If elections were to take place today, there is a good chance Hamas would repeat its success in the 2006 elections, the last to take place in the West Bank and Gaza.
As long as Hamas controls Gaza and is driven by an Islamist ideology that seeks to use violence to replace Israel with an Islamic caliphate governed by a medieval reading of Shari’a, it is only a matter of time before the next war. And the IDF is preparing for that possibility.
The IDF’s intelligence on Izzadin Kassam in Gaza has increased significantly since Operation Protective Edge.
The Southern Command has spent the past year and a half since that war making intensive preparations for renewed conflict.
But there are a number of additional steps that the government should take to help calm the residents of the South.
First, it should invest in an underground barrier to prevent Hamas from digging attack tunnels from Gaza into Israel. In February, heads of a number or regional councils in the South met with Netanyahu and received his assurances that budgetary considerations would not prevent the building of the underground barrier. Moving ahead with its construction would reassure residents of the South and encourage more Israelis to move there.
Which brings us to another step the government should take: provide more incentives for Israelis – particularly young couples – to join existing communities in the South. This should include removing obstacles to growth by carrying out measures such as rezoning land for residential use, improving public transportation and expanding existing roads.
Since Operation Protective Edge, the population of the Eshkol Regional Council area has grown by a thousand, to 15,000. Gadi Yarkoni, head of the council, said that more would have come had the government adopted a more aggressive absorption policy.
Whether or not war will break out anytime soon, Israel’s presence in the South is nonnegotiable. Everything possible should be done to strengthen that presence.