Analyis: Deceptive quiet on Gaza border

My visit last week to the headquarters of one of the battalions stationed around the Gaza border was deceptively tranquil. The road leading to the base may still be full of craters created by Hamas mortar shells, fired in the years of bombardment leading up to Operation Cast Lead last January. But in the neighbouring kibbutz, work is going on peacefully in the fields, right next to the border fence.

For the first time in a decade, children in the nearby town of Sderot started the school year two weeks ago without having to first practise running to the bomb shelters.

No Israeli soldier or civilian has been killed around Gaza for over six months and, in the unofficial buffer-zone around the fence, no armed figures can be seen. But senior IDF officers in the sector say that the silence may well prove to be temporary. The power struggle within the Gaza Strip could suck Israel in at any moment.

“Hamas has been both muzzled and is itself muzzling,” said one general this week. He was referring to the bloody clampdown Hamas has been carrying out in recent months against radical Islamist groups allied with al Qaida, which has been challenging it from within.

Groups from Gaza are still trying to kidnap IDF soldiers

Hamas, which controls the Strip, is certainly not interested right now in a resumption of the attacks, intent instead on consolidating its control and rebuilding its military infrastructure. But its Palestinian opponents would like to see chaos return.

“The size of the organisation doesn’t really matter,” says Colonel Motti Baruch, commander of the Nahal Brigade, which is currently positioned on the border. “When it comes to launching an operation, their capabilities are very similar.”

In recent weeks, the IDF has discovered and destroyed two tunnels that were being dug under the border. These tunnels were designed to launch attacks on IDF positions with the specific intention of capturing soldiers and bringing them back into Gaza, exactly in the way Gilad Shalit was taken over three years ago.

In a number of other incidents, IDF sappers dismantled what the military call “explosive scenes”, in which several devices are planted near the fence in order to cause a large number of casualties. Whatever the size of the groups laying these devices, IDF officers say that they show an expertise similar to that of Hizbollah in Lebanon.

At the same time, there has been a rise in the number of shooting and mortar firing incidents against technical teams working on the fence in recent weeks. Commanders are aware that all it takes is a slip-up on the IDF’s part and the region could once again ignite.

“The challenge now is to remain vigilant enough so we can be sure that the farmer working near the fence isn’t actually a terrorist moving a device towards the fence,” says Colonel Baruch.

A few hours later, two mortar rounds were fired at a routine patrol of Nahal soldiers. They were badly off-target and no-one was hurt. While this is a far cry from the days of intense Kassam salvos, they serve as a reminder of just how fragile the unofficial ceasefire really is.

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010