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1 civilian killed in terror attack; 1 soldier during arrest

Amid virus, 2020 on track for fewest security-related deaths in Israel’s history

In year-end briefing, IDF chief says military driving Iran out of Syria, maintaining calm in Gaza; ‘We successfully fulfilled the primary mission of the IDF: providing defense’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF soldiers guard a bus station at the Tapuah Junction next to the West Bank city of Nablus, June 30, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)
IDF soldiers guard a bus station at the Tapuah Junction next to the West Bank city of Nablus, June 30, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

The year 2020 has seen the lowest number of Israelis killed in terrorism or combat in the country’s history — quite likely, in part, as a result of the chaos created by the coronavirus pandemic.

According to Israel Defense Forces figures, two Israelis — one civilian and one soldier — have been killed this year: Rabbi Shai Ohayon, who was stabbed to death by a Palestinian man in a terror attack outside Tel Aviv in August; and Sgt. First Class Amit Ben-Ygal, who was killed when a Palestinian man threw a rock at his head during an arrest raid in the West Bank in May.

In 2019 — a that which had previously seen the lowest number of security-related deaths — Israel had nine deaths: two soldiers and seven civilians. Sixteen people were killed the year before that.

“We are ending a year in which we successfully fulfilled the primary mission of the IDF: providing defense and security. We thwarted every attempt to infiltrate into Israel and we saw a drop in the number of casualties and in the number of rockets fired at Israel,” IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi told reporters in a year-end briefing this week.

According to IDF figures, 174 rockets and mortar shells were fired at Israel by December 2020, the majority of them in February during a two-day round of fighting between the IDF and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza. This amounts to a roughly seven-fold decrease from the previous two years, when 1,296 and 1,164 projectiles were fired, respectively.

An Israeli police officer inspects the damage to a home after it was hit by a rocket fired by Palestinian militants from the Gaza Strip, in Sderot on August 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

The three years following the 2014 Gaza war were far calmer than 2020 and remain some of the calmest in Israel’s history, however, with fewer than 45 projectiles being fired at Israel each year during that period. The IDF’s figures for 2020 also do not include the hundreds of balloon-borne incendiary and explosive devices launched into Israel from Gaza during the month of August, which caused many destructive fires in and around Israeli communities surrounding the Strip.

In turn, the number of IDF strikes against Hamas and Islamic Jihad targets in the Gaza Strip has also gone down considerably in the past year.

A tunnel that Israel believes was dug by the Hamas terror group from Gaza into southern Israel, which was uncovered on October 22, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition, Israel is nearing completion of the underground barrier surrounding the Gaza Strip, which is aimed at finding and blocking tunnels dug from the enclave into Israel. In October, the sensor-studded barrier identified one such passage, a two-kilometer-long tunnel tens of meters deep, in what the military said was the first successful use of the new system.

‘Operating on six fronts’

While Kohavi, who will mark two years in his position as head of the IDF next month, credited these record low numbers of deaths and attacks to the military’s proactive actions and to the deterrence it has built up over the years, the coronavirus pandemic also appears to have played a major role. Lockdowns and other coronavirus-related measures likely had a part in limiting terror attacks from the West Bank. And enemy nations like Iran, as well as terror groups like Hamas, have put more of their resources and energy into fighting the virus rather than Israel.

At the same time, the IDF has continued conducting operations to counter Iran, particularly against its goal of establishing a permanent base of operations in Syria, which would give it another front from which to attack Israel in addition to Lebanon.

In total, the military has struck some 500 targets over the past year — more in some areas and fewer in others compared to 2019 — and has “carried out many covert operations,” Kohavi said.

Flames are seen following an Israeli air strike in the town of Khan Yunis, in the southern Gaza Strip, early on November 22, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

“We are operating on six fronts intensively. There are fronts where we operate on a day-to-day basis and those where we operate on a weekly or monthly basis,” Kohavi said. The army chief did not list those six areas, though they likely include the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Syria and Lebanon.

“The Middle East is the most fragmented, divided and violent region in the world,” the army chief said.

“Most of the countries surrounding Israel have areas that are ungoverned,” he added. Kohavi explained that this allowed Iran and terror groups to operate freely in those regions and made it more difficult to get the governments that are meant to control those areas to rein them in, forcing Israel to do so itself.

Iran scales back in Syria

In Syria, the IDF has adopted a dual approach, both directly targeting Iranian bases and warehouses, as well as Syrian military infrastructure — mostly the air defense systems that fire at Israeli jets — in order to exact a price from Damascus for hosting Iranian forces in the country, with the goal of driving a wedge between the two.

This could be seen most clearly last month when the IDF launched a large wave of airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian military targets in Syria in response to a failed plot to attack Israeli soldiers with anti-personnel mines in the Golan Heights.

According to Kohavi, these operations — referred to generally as the “campaign between campaigns” or by its Hebrew acronym mabam — have yielded results.

Footage of Israeli strikes on Iranian and Syrian targets in southern Syria following an attempted explosive attack by Iranian-backed operatives against Israeli troops on the Golan Heights, November 18, 2020 (Israel Defense Forces)

“Iranian entrenchment in Syria is in a clear trend of slowing down as a direct result of IDF activities, though we still have a way to go to reach our goals on this front,” the army chief said.

In the past year the IDF has seen a marked drop over the previous two years in the number of fighters inside Syria from Iran and its proxies, as well as the closing of Iranian military bases in the country and a significant decrease in the amount of weaponry being transported into and through Syria.

Though Israeli defense officials have largely credited the “campaign between campaigns” with causing the Iranians to abandon their plans for Syria, at least some of this decrease in the number of Iranian-backed fighters, bases and weapons in Syria can be attributed to victories by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad on the battlefield two years ago, which meant he no longer required the same amount of military support from Iran and its proxies, leading them to return home.

The army chief also praised the growing trend of Arab countries normalizing ties with Israel, which has so far seen signed agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as stated intentions by Sudan to make peace with the Jewish state. Other countries in the Middle East and North Africa are also reportedly considering the move.

“The normalization steps in the Middle East have a positive influence on our alliances and on security aspects in the Middle East,” Kohavi said.

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