Amid quiet in south, IDF and Hamas intensively prepare for next round

New tunnel detection system, radars for short-range projectiles being installed in southern Israel; In Gaza, Hamas digging deeper tunnels, watches IDF's border movements.

An Israeli army officer during an army organized tour for journalists in a tunnel said to be used by Palestinian terrorists for cross-border attacks (photo credit: REUTERS)
An Israeli army officer during an army organized tour for journalists in a tunnel said to be used by Palestinian terrorists for cross-border attacks
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last summer, the agricultural fields of Eshkol and Sdot Negev regions, near the Gaza border, were battle grounds that were filled with military vehicles, booming artillery guns, non-stop Hamas projectiles and tunnel attacks.
Today, these farming districts are in full, peaceful bloom. Green fields host tractors, not tanks; farmers work their crops, and a pastoral calm has descended. Today, the military is largely out of sight, but not out of mind. Like Hamas nearby, the IDF is very much still here, and both are quietly preparing for the possibility that this fragile quiet shatters.
In Gaza, Hamas's weapons factories are churning out many new rockets. Hamas is digging new tunnels in earnest, its guerrilla-terrorist military wing, Izzadin Kassam, is holding combat training drills under Israel's nose, and its planners are coming up with new ways to try and surprise the IDF.
In Israel, the IDF's Gaza territorial Division is monitoring all of these developments, while working on staying a few steps ahead of Hamas, by heavily fortifying defenses in the south in new ways.
Across places like Kibutz Ein Hashlosha, Kissufim, Nahal Oz, and Kerem Shalom, the Gaza Division has been busy installing multiple layers of new defenses.
These include new electronic sensor fences around communities, such as the one the IDF installed in Kissufim two weeks ago. The fences are linked up to IDF company and battalion control rooms, who in turn can scramble forces that are always nearby. (Civilian security liaison officers are present in each front line community, together with trained and armed civilians response teams made up of local residents).
A year after the Gaza war, numerous communities still host IDF forces on a permanent basis due to their proximity to the Gaza Strip.
Across the border, the IDF has seen Hamas dig tunnels intensively. It is likely that Hamas is digging, thinking that this will provide it with an advantage in the next round. Disturbingly, it is not entirely clear whether any of those tunnels have crossed the border into Israel.
In response, the IDF has begun deploying components of a new hi-tech underground tunnel detection system. The system is still at an early stage, and it is incomplete. But it can detect tunnels.
It is one component of a multi-layered defensive military network, spread out across the area, which the IDF's Gaza Division believes puts Israel in a far better place than it was prior to Operation Protective Edge last summer.
Hamas is also building a new road that straddles its border with Israel, near Khan Younis, and personnel from its military wing can be seen, armed with machine guns, guarding the road works, jotting down all of the Israeli military movements that they can see.
The IDF stares right back, observing it all, and preparing.
The IDF's Combat Intelligence Collection units look not only at enemy activities in Gaza. These units have also turned their gaze inwards, back into Israel, to ensure they can detect and respond to cross-border infiltrations quickly.
They rely on high-rise masts that have radars, and day and night electro-optical sensors. These masts dot the entire border region.
Large numbers of mobile field intelligence units also quietly move around the region, and some of them look back into Israel, scanning for infiltrators.
Hamas may have decided that in the next war, whenever one may break out, it will focus on firing short-range mortar and rockets on Israeli front line regions, due to their track record of inflicting more casualties and damages than the longer-range projectiles, which were blocked by Iron Dome batteries.
Responding to that threat, the IDF has begun receiving new radars that track short-range fire, and provide longer alert times for local residents, for whom every second counts. Some radars are still in the procurement stage, and others have already arrived. The same radars should enhance the IDF's ability to fire back at the sources of attack within seconds.
Additionally, the electronic border fence with Gaza is undergoing changes. Since the truce went into effect in August, every Gazan infiltrator has been caught and arrested. The IDF frequently comes across Gazan infiltrators, seeking to escape Gaza and Hamas's iron-fisted rule.
The threat of shoulder-fired guided missiles is also present. In some cases, the IDF has planted trees to hide sensitive sections, such as a local train line that services the city of Sderot. But most of the area remains vulnerable to this kind of attack.
Local residents at Kibbutz Nativ Ha'asara hear blasts at night and bulldozers digging, just over the border. When they ask what the sounds mean, army officials tell them the uncomfortable truth: That Hamas is training just on the other side of the fence, that the blasts are coming from grenade exercises. That Hamas is rebuilding itself.
The Gaza Division is not only instituting new defenses. It is also planning devastating counter-attacks, which can be set in motion in very little time, and which should cause Hamas to think twice before ordering a future attack.
A year after the war, the IDF is not fully certain about who calls the shots in Gaza - whether it is the military or political wings in Hamas. The latter is more concerned about civilian issues and civil reconstruction. Will Hamas's military wing chief Muhammad Deif seek permission from political wing chief Ismail Haniyeh before ordering an attack? This remains unclear.
Relations between Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) are also amorphous. On the one hand, the Gazan factions are allies. And yet, PIJ fired a rocket at Israel last week due to an internal dispute, without coordinating things first with Hamas. Nevertheless, PIJ is also busy rebuilding its forces. It too does not have an interest in a war right now.
In the meantime, despite their anxieties, the residents of southern communities have resumed a routine life. Families are returning to communities they left. Thousands of visitors flocked to the area during the last Passover holiday. Cyclists ride through on weekends. Wild flowers are blooming en masse.
The IDF is determined to let southern farmers work every last meter of their lands, right up to the border. And yet, everyone knows that the quiet is deceptive.
No one in the defense establishment expects Hamas to renounce its aggressive, Islamist ideology any time soon.
While Israel's intelligence agencies continue to try and work out Hamas's precise intentions for the near and more distant future, the IDF's Gaza Division is tracking Hamas's capabilities, and building responses to them, every hour of every day.