Israel Braces for Incendiary Week in Gaza, West Bank as Tensions With Iran Expected Ease

After a satisfactory outcome, for the time being, that ended the round of clashes with Iran in Syria, Israel’s defense establishment will have to focus this week on events in the territories. The main risk of escalation spiraling out of control will come from the major protests planned along the border fence with the Gaza Strip on Monday and Tuesday. But in the north, too, the massive strikes by the Israel Air Force and thwarting Iranian action were not the end of the matter — and at this point there is no hint that Iran is considering putting a stop to establishing itself militarily in Syria.

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Hamas-sponsored demonstrations were held at the Gaza border Friday for the seventh consecutive week. One Palestinian was killed and hundreds were wounded, some by live fire, representing a decline in casualties. Hamas’ latest action — sending kites with incendiary devices into kibbutz and moshav fields near the Gaza border (which the media has dramatically dubbed “kite terror,” to the displeasure of Israel Defense Forces officers) — seems to have met its match.

The IDF is using volunteers to operate fast, small drones in the area. Within a few minutes a drone was seen downing a burning kite by ramming it, and another drone stuck a hook into another kite and brought it down. The solutions, as usual, were improvised very quickly. A major in the career army suggested using drones to ram the kites; the commander of the Gaza Battalion camp, who likes to fish on his furloughs, thought up the drone with the hook. The whole thing took an absurd turn when a right-wing activist tried to launch a revenge kite at Gaza and set fire by mistake to a field on the Israeli side. And the winds in this large open area are often fickle, hampering the soldiers’ efforts to use tear gas, which sometimes blows back onto the Israeli troops.

>> Embassies, Nakba, Ramadan: All You Need to Know About Israel’s Roller-coaster Week ■ Nakba Day Protests Starting Monday Will Be Most Violent to Date, IDF Official Warns

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But the army now seems much more organized, having now gained experience with the Palestinians’ new methods: mass protests, supposedly civilian, under the guise of which dozens of young activists in the Palestinian military wings approach the fence and try to damage and cross it. The view from the embankment next to which a sniper’s post has been put up south of the Karni crossing reveals something of the task’s complexity. Only a few dozen meters separates the barbed-wire fencing that the IDF has installed west of the border fence, in the Gaza Strip and the border fence itself. A mass assault on this buffer zone could happen within only a few minutes, and on previous weekends, improvised explosives and grenades were thrown from this area.

At every point of friction the army has posted brigade and battalion commanders who personally authorize snipers to open fire. Sometimes, particularly when the sniper is in the career army or a police officer, the snipers themselves refrain from taking a shot because they cannot be sure that they will hit a protester only in the shoulder or the leg as the rules require. According to the army, newer and more deadly ammunition is not being used along the fence. A good many of the fatalities are based by a bullet straying upward or ricochet from the ground.

Israeli firefighters attempt to extinguish a fire in a wheat field near the Kibbutz of Nahal Oz, along the border with the Gaza strip, on May 8, 2018MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

From a second visit to the area in recent weeks and a series of discussions with commanders and soldiers, no sense can be discerned that snipers are trigger-happy, as some statements from the left wing have it. The IDF has also invited foreign diplomats to the border; a visit to the sniper posts during clashes might fill out the perspective they have from their embassies in Tel Aviv.

There are some surprising patterns in Palestinian behavior. For the second week in a row, protesters have set fire to the Palestinian side of the Kerem Shalom crossing through which goods enter the Strip. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has ordered the crossing closed until the damage can be assessed. And despite the electricity shortage in the Strip, the tent camps from which protests march set out toward the crossing are light up with floodlights in the middle of the day.

Beginning Sunday, 11 battalions — more than three times the usual troop numbers — will be deployed along the fence ahead of the expected protests. The army is preparing for about 100,000 protestors and anticipate mass attempts, more violent than in the past, to breach the fence. This time, the events are less identified with Hamas. The opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Monday and Nakba Day on Tuesday will provide an all-Palestinian context to the protest and could sweep in supporters of other Palestinian groups. On Saturday night, the Israel Air Force struck a tunnel Hamas dug under the Erez Crossing on the northern border of the Strip. This is the ninth tunnel the IDF has destroyed in the Strip during the last six months.

Demonstrations are also anticipated in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, although meanwhile widespread enthusiasm has not been seen and there has been complete quiet in the West Bank for these weeks in the Gaza Strip in which many were killed and injured. But the need to show dominance in the street could also bring Fatah supporters out in the next two days. And the opening of the U.S. Embassy could spark new motivation for lone-wolf attacks. On Friday two car-ramming attempts took place in the West Bank and a soldier was slightly injured. Forces in the West Bank have been beefed up with another brigade.

Iran in Syria

The exchange of blows on the Syrian border early Thursday morning, which was described by many politicians and some media outlets almost like a national holiday, garnered little attention in Iran. Israel believes that the regime wants to keep a low profile on the clashes and conceal its losses, the final number of which was not made clear. In Iran, by the way, the opposite theory is being heard, as if Israel had many casualties and is hiding this from the public (a claim that even a brief acquaintance with Israeli society would prove unreasonable).

After the incidents, the question came up of why Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, deployed his troops so carelessly, with most of the rockets fired landing in Syrian territory and four shot down by an Iron Dome battery. According to Military Intelligence, Soleimani was under pressure to launch an immediate attack after Israel hit a number of weapons stores and launchers on the previous days. And for the first time, one of the weapons was revealed that the Iranians wanted to deploy in Syria: Iranian-made anti-aircraft missile systems whose range (about 110 kilometers) is intended to hit Israel Air Force planes during Israeli strikes in Syria.

Military Intelligence says the round of fighting in Syria is over. Iran will find it difficult to continue with a direct conflict, when its long-range missiles have not yet been deployed to any major extent and most of its actions can be seen by Israeli intelligence. Hezbollah, even after its success in the Lebanese elections, is not anxious to volunteer its men for the fighting. But Soleimani is described as a formidable foe, who will do his homework quickly and study new methods of action and in any case is not expected to give up the plan of establishing Iranian forces in Syria just because of a few bruises. The army is pleased so far with the “game of chess” with the Iranians in Syria and are trying not to be swept up in the melodramatic media praise over the success of the operations.

It may be assumed that from the point of view of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, there is a great deal of irony in the embrace he is now receiving from right-wing journalists and tweets. These are the same people who accused him regularly over the past two years of defeatism and leftist tendencies because of his attitude toward Elor Azaria — the soldier who was released from prison last week after serving time for the manslaughter death of an incapacitated Palestinian assailant — and his insistence on not turning the West Bank into the Wild West at the height of lone-wolf knife attacks.

Developments after May 15 depend first and foremost on the number of casualties among Palestinian demonstrators at the Gaza border over the next few days. The holy month of Ramadan begins right after the current wave of protests and every year for the past nine years, fasting periods ended with a larger than usual number of terror attacks. In the north, the battle with Iran may be expected to continue, perhaps less intensely and a slower rate than in the past month. However, Israel’s security problems will not disappear, even if it seems that at the moment the IDF is meeting the most important challenge from its perspective — fulfilling its missions while avoiding all-out war.