Two serious incidents on the Gaza border in a week illustrate an emerging trend: Groups of armed men attempting to infiltrate Israel. The IDF released images of a number of armed suspects who were adjacent to the security fence of the Gaza Strip Saturday night. Similarly on Saturday morning, on August 10, at least four armed Palestinians tried to infiltrate Israel.
It could be that the two incidents are unrelated and coincidental. But the lack of two similar incidents in the recent years in such a short period of time, and amidst Hamas's own propaganda about claims that Al-Aqsa mosque must be "defended" in Jerusalem, point to Hamas desperation and the desperation of other factions in Gaza.
On the August 10 incident, troops from a Golani battalion arrived at the scene of the infiltration along the security fence and neutralized the threat. It was later praised by commanders. Images published showed RPGs and AK-47s carried among the ordinance. Hamas and Islamic Jihad sought to portray the second incident as one involving angry and rebellious youth. But it comes amidst rocket sirens and other tensions. The August 10 incident was seen as a potentially major attack, thwarted by soldiers on alert.
Armed infiltration attacks were a norm in Gaza during the Second Intifada.
Armed infiltration attacks were a norm in Gaza during the Second Intifada, with dozens of incidents, some of them deadly. For instance, in October 2001, a Palestinian terrorist cell infiltrated the northern Gaza district community of Alei Sinai and opened fire and threw grenades, killing two and wounding 15. In September 2004, armed Palestinians killed three soliders during an attack with AK-47s and grenades near Morag in the southern Gaza Strip. The attack was accredited to Fatah and Islamic Jihad. In 2004, another attack near Rafah killed one and wounded five when terrorists used a tunnel. These are according to incidents logged by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The most recent similar incidents can be seen in an attack in 2012 and the Gaza seaborne commando raid in July 2014.
Over the last year and a half, since the Great Return March tensions began in March 2018, there have been numerous attempts by Hamas and PIJ to infiltrate Israel using a variety of methods. There have also been sniper attacks and a Kornet missile attack in November 2018. There have been no shortages of individual armed attempts to infiltrate. For instance, an April incident involved three suspects trying to cross the security fence with knives.
But the use of weapons and a group of men appears to be a new strategy, borrowing on the old days before Hamas was thwarted in its attempts to build tunnels and before its attempt at mass rioting was also thwarted. This shows that the organization and its allies among PIJ and other groups may be searching for some legitimacy and are increasingly out of options. Hamas has sought to downplay the incidents and also emphasize that it is involved in "defending" Jerusalem, a ploy that it uses every time it knows that the role of Hamas has been largely sidelined and forgotten in the region.
Are Hamas attempts to use an armed squad a means to test Israel, or just to show off at home?
Recent reports indicated Hamas sent a delegation to Iran and that it is keen to join any kind of conflict against Israel in which it is a junior partner with Hezbollah or other Iranian proxies. Are its attempts to use an armed squad a means to test Israel, or just to show off at home? It knows these men won't succeed. It has not been successful for many years in such incidents. Is it trying to stoke a conflict, which it has been attempting to stoke for more than a year, on the eve of Israeli elections? It knows that its past attempts, including more rockets than were fired before the 2009 or 2012 and 2014 wars has not resulted in a new ground war.
Whether it was "rebellious youth" who were angered about Al-Aqsa, or a much more serious emerging trend, Hamas and the other factions know the likely results. Their threats about a conflict, but their relative silence in terms of portraying these attacks as any kind of success, show that they are reticent to brag about failure, while still wanting to appear that they are playing a militant role in Gaza.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.