After IED attack, Israel warns Gazans of more severe response to protests

Military liaison says weekly demonstrations being used as cover for terror activity, encourages Palestinians to rally against Hamas instead

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)
Palestinian protesters clash with Israeli soldiers near the border fence east of Gaza City on December 22, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mohammed Abed)

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians on Monday warned Gazans that the army will respond more aggressively to riots along the security fence, after four soldiers were injured Saturday by an improvised explosive device that was apparently placed there during such a demonstration.

“We know that the violent clashes on the border are used as cover for terrorist activity, as happened last Saturday. And we will not allow such an event to happen again,” Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Palestinians in an Arabic video on social media.

“Let it be clear: Beginning today, the IDF will take tough and determined action against rioters along the Strip’s border,” he said.

On Saturday, four IDF soldiers were wounded when an explosive device was detonated next to them along the Gaza Strip security fence near the city of Khan Younis. Two of the soldiers were taken to a hospital in serious condition and two were moderately hurt.

The soldiers set off the explosive while removing a flag that had been left near the border fence during the demonstration, the latest in several months of violent weekly riots along the border.

The Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of the Government’s Activities in the Territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai. (Screenshot)

Mordechai, whose formal title is coordinator of government activities in the territories, or COGAT, encouraged Gazans to instead demonstrate against the Strip’s rulers: the Hamas terrorist organization.

He noted that in recent months, “15 Palestinians have been killed and 400 people have been injured” by Israeli troops during protests on the border, but said Hamas was to blame for exploiting the demonstrators.

“I am certain you would never see the children of Hamas’s leadership getting close to violent terrorist demonstrations along the border,” he said.

The Saturday explosion, the most significant event in terms of Israeli casualties along the Gaza Strip border since the 2014 war, set off a round of intense fighting over the weekend.

A military helicopter carrying IDF soldiers wounded in an explosion during a patrol along the Gaza border arrives at Beersheba’s Soroka Medical Center on February 17, 2018. (Screen capture; Twitter)

Immediately following the IED attack, an Israeli tank fired a shell at an observation post, in response to the attack, the army said.

Later that evening, terrorists in the Gaza Strip launched a rocket that hit a house in a nearby Israeli community, causing damage but no injury.

In response to both the IED and rocket attack, the IDF conducted a series of airstrikes and artillery shellings, hitting a total of 18 targets in the Gaza Strip.

A second rocket Sunday night was also followed by an Israeli air raid early Monday morning.

Among the targets hit was an attack tunnel near the Kerem Shalom Crossing, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Monday.

An army spokesperson called the IED attack “a serious incident that aimed at destabilizing the region.”

The official told reporters that the patrol — made up of soldiers from the Golani Brigade and the Combat Engineering Corps — stopped along the border to remove a flag that had been placed at the fence a day earlier during a protest, and that a device planted below the flag then detonated.

A model of a flag, the staff of which was rigged with explosives to blow when soldiers tried to remove it from the Gaza Strip security fence, on display on January 10, 2018. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

This type of IED — one disguised as a flag staff — had been used against Israeli troops in the past and is a design that soldiers in the Southern Command are specifically trained to handle, according to the head of the command’s training base, Lt. Col. Liron Aroch.

The army said it was reviewing the incident to determine if the soldiers had followed the appropriate protocols.

“All of the conduct is being investigated. We will understand exactly what happened and learn lessons accordingly,” a military official said.

Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot warned ministers during a cabinet meeting that Israel could soon face another war with Gaza-based terror group Hamas, as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian and economic conditions in the coastal enclave.

In a security assessment handed recently to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the defense establishment reiterated its belief that Hamas is not interested in another conflict with Israel. However, an economic collapse would make such a scenario inevitable.

Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, has been under increasing pressure as the coastal enclave teeters on the verge of an economic and infrastructure collapse that UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov last week said was already “well beyond” a humanitarian crisis.

Last month, the US froze over $100 million in contributions to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, after the Palestinians announced they would no longer accept the US as a mediator in peace talks with Israel. The Palestinians were angered after US President Donald Trump on December 6 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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