Quiet on the Gaza border is deceptive

By Anshel Pfeffer, December 17, 2009
Residents of Sderot still wait at cement-fortified bus stops, although the Gaza border is calm — for now

Residents of Sderot still wait at cement-fortified bus stops, although the Gaza border is calm — for now

Almost a year after Operation Cast Lead, Israel may still be fighting a legal and diplomatic battle over the war in the international arena, but around Gaza itself there is uncustomary calm.

On the Israeli side, all the damage caused by missiles and mortar rounds has been repaired, and life is back almost to normal in the villages around the Gaza Strip. While the occasional Kassam is still fired towards Israel, these are always badly aimed. They quite often fall in Palestinian territory and have not caused any Israeli casualties in the last 11 months.

In Sderot, children are playing in the playgrounds, even those without bomb shelters, real-estate prices are up and a recent auction for plots of land was oversubscribed.

Since the killing of an IDF tracker by a Palestinian roadside bomb in late January, not a single Israeli citizen or soldier has been killed in the Gaza area. This is probably the quietest period around Gaza for at least 20 years.

So why are IDF officers not euphoric? The Palestinian organisations are still active. There have been 300 launches of rockets and mortars and 100 attempts to attack patrols on the border fence over the past 11 months. Although they were unsuccessful, they are proof that the motivation is still there.

On the other hand, in 2008, there were 3,600 launches.

“I believe this a temporary lull which may last weeks, months or perhaps years,” says Major General Yoav Galant, commander of the IDF’s Southern Command. “But in the end it will burst. Despite the quiet, we can see the clouds on the horizon and we have to be prepared for a possible war.”

The attempts to fire on Israel and to attack the IDF patrols on the border are not carried out by Hamas, but by Islamist jihadi organisations, which are challenging Hamas’s rule. Major General Amos Yadlin, the IDF’s intelligence chief, said this week that Hamas is even trying to stop those organisations from attacking Israel because an escalation now is not in their interest.

Not that Hamas’s efforts are the main reason for the failure of the attacks. In addition to the sophisticated electronic fence and advanced surveillance systems encircling the Gaza Strip, the IDF has also positioned five infantry battalions and one tank battalion around the border fence. Heavily armoured forces patrol each sector. The IDF also patrols within the border fence, maintaining a “security area” of 500 metres.

Hamas, meanwhile, is not sitting idle. “There is little attempt to rebuild factories or civil infrastructure — only to rebuild their terror capabilities,” says a senior IDF office in the sector. “Hamas currently has clear priorities. First, major re-armament and building a new more advanced set of fortifications for the next round of warfare. Second, bolstering its rule in Gaza and firmly establishing its hegemony among the Palestinian organisations, and only third, to rebuild Gaza for the civilians.

“We can see it in the way they have diverted shipments of EU-supplied cement which was meant for civil use but has been poured into building command bunkers.”

Over the last year, Hamas, and also the other Palestinian organisations, have acquired new anti-tank missiles with a longer range. There are also more rockets, a few of which can hit targets 60 km away. Hamas is now trying to achieve 80 km, which would theoretically put Tel Aviv in their range.

Most of these rockets are smuggled in through tunnels under the Egyptian border. Hamas’s Iranian benefactors have even designed a missile that is easily broken up into pieces to enable swift transfer through the tunnels and quick reassembly in Gaza.

Experts who train Hamas forces also arrive through the tunnels. Alongside the smuggling, Hamas still retains the capability of building its own missiles.

Hamas has also absorbed the lessons of Cast Lead. It has decided to intensify its operations from within civilian areas, in recognition of the problems this causes the IDF both on the battlefield and in world opinion, and to expand its tunnel system.

According to Israeli intelligence, tunnels now enable Hamas fighters to fire salvoes of up to 20 rockets from hiding places. Tunnels have even been dug close to IDF positions on the border, as potential launching points for attacks.

Meanwhile, the Islamic jihad factions who are currently the ones trying to launch attacks are receiving funding and technical know-how from al Qaida sources. While so far, they do not pose a serious challenge to Hamas, they are part of a wider trend in the local population towards even greater Islamic radicalism. This is a reaction, in part, to the delay in rebuilding efforts.

“People in Gaza have been disappointed so many times,” says one IDF analyst. “They thought Hamas would succeed where Fatah failed, now they are turning elsewhere. But for now there are no real signs of another coup. This is just a letting off of steam. Hamas is just too strong.”

Last updated: 4:47pm, December 17 2009