By ANNA AHRONHEIM
A Palestinian demonstrator uses a sling to hurl back a tear gas canister fired by Israeli troops during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence. (photo credit:” REUTERS/IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA)
Almost a year after Palestinians first began demonstrating along the Gaza border fence as part of the Great Return March, Israel is facing a high risk of military escalation, the IDF military intelligence assessment for 2019 has warned.
Based on the assessment, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who was sworn in last month as the military’s top officer, prioritized the southern front as one which could explode into war at any moment.
As one of his first visits as chief of staff, Kochavi went to the Southern Command and met with senior officers and approved operational plans for war, including setting up a centralized administrative unit to prepare a list of potential targets in Gaza in case a war should break out.
The grim assessment comes as Palestinian “night confusion units” have resumed along the fence earlier this month after several months of quiet, with rioters setting fires, hurling explosive devices, shining lasers at troops across the border to blind them and attempting to infiltrate into Israel.
On Sunday, an IDF soldier was moderately wounded after an IED thrown at troops during the night clashes exploded next to him. Identified as Yoadd Zaguri, an infantryman in the Nahal Brigade originally from Los Angeles, he was hospitalized for shrapnel wounds to his neck.
Two days earlier, a Border Police officer was lightly wounded in the leg from shrapnel from another IED thrown at troops.
The Great Return March protests began on March 30th and has seen thousands of Gazans violently demonstrating along the security fence with Israel demanding an end to the 12-year long blockade.
According to the intelligence assessment, while Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar has succeeded in alleviating certain conditions in the blockaded coastal enclave with the Great Return March protests, including an expanded fishing zone and the opening of the Rafah crossing with Egypt for longer periods of time, he has still not been able to lift the blockade.
During the violent weekly protests, Gazans have been burning tires and hurling stones as well as grenades and other explosive devices towards IDF troops. Gazans have also launched countless aerial incendiary devices into southern Israel, devastating thousands of acres of land.
In a bid to alleviate conditions in the coastal enclave and hoping it could calm the months of border clashes in October, Israel allowed financial support for the Strip to be provided by Qatar, who began to transfer some $10 million per month in fuel to Gaza’s only power station, as well as $15m. a month to pay the salaries of Palestinian civil servants in Gaza.
But, according to a report by Israel’s Kan public broadcaster, Qatar’s envoy to the Gaza Strip Mohammad al-Emadi has warned that Doha would not extend the payments for the electricity supply beyond April due to Hamas’s continued foot-dragging on several large infrastructure projects, including a long-delayed high-voltage power line from Israel. The payments for the civil servants are set to end in May.
Despite the financial aid from Qatar, socioeconomic conditions in Gaza are bleak, with an unemployment rate of 54.9% and over 68% of families suffering from poverty and food insecurity, according to a January report by United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA).
Despite both sides not being interested in another war, a continued deterioration of Gaza’s civilian infrastructure will continue to put pressure on Hamas, which could lead to another violent clash with Israel.
In order to improve the humanitarian situation and to bring in international involvement in the Gaza Strip, it is believed that Sinwar might consider having militants attack IDF troops along the border fence by sniper fire, anti-tank missiles, firing rockets at Israeli cities or attacking troops through one of their cross-border attack tunnels.
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the second largest group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas, was also assessed as a factor increasing the risk of an escalation since it is not under the direct control of Hamas and acts independently for its own interests.
In late January, an IDF officer was lightly wounded after a he was struck in his helmet by sniper fire along the Gaza Strip security fence claimed by PIJ.
The officer was struck near Kibbutz Kissufim, the same area where Staff Sgt. Aviv Levi was killed after he was shot in the chest by sniper fire. Levi was the first soldier killed along the Gaza front since Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Another soldier was struck by sniper fire in the area less than a week after Levi was killed.
The IDF has warned that both Hamas and PIJ have restored their military capabilities to their pre-2014 strength, and expect that in the next war the southern communities bordering the Strip would be incessantly pounded with rockets and mortar attacks.
Due to that threat, Kochavi has ordered an increase of two Iron Dome anti-missile batteries, which would see Israel have a total of 10 Iron Dome batteries, eight manned by conscript soldiers and two by reservists.
In January former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Gadi Eisenkot stated that the Israeli military thwarted the smuggling of 15,000-20,000 rockets into the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, but despite that, 2018 saw the most serious peak of violence between Israel and terror groups in the strip since the end of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, with over 1,000 rockets fired.