Defense minister orders IDF on high alert at Gaza border

Liberman says troops ready to confront ‘any scenario’ after army bolsters forces around security fence

Israeli soldiers boarding armored vehicles on their way to patrol along the Israeli-Gazan border on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)
Israeli soldiers boarding armored vehicles on their way to patrol along the Israeli-Gazan border on July 21, 2018. (Gili Yaari/FLASH90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday said the Israel Defense Forces was on high alert on the Gaza border, following weeks of nightly riots along the security fence.

“Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman held an assessment session this afternoon on the situation in the Gaza Strip, together with the chief of staff, head of military intelligence, Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), and other security officials,” a statement from his office said.

Liberman instructed the IDF to maintain “maximum preparedness for any scenario,” according to his office.

Earlier in the day, the army announced it had decided to deploy additional troops to the Gaza Strip area.

“It was decided to send large numbers of reinforcements in the coming days to the Southern Command and to continue the determined policy of thwarting terror attacks and preventing infiltrations into Israel from the Gaza Strip security fence,” the army said in a statement.

The army also set up additional Iron Dome air defense batteries in southern Israel as part of the move.

Border riots, dubbed the “Great March of Return,” have increased dramatically in recent weeks. These began as weekly events from late March through the summer, but appeared to slow as the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group entered indirect talks with Israel aimed at a ceasefire.

When those talks stalled, Hamas increased the pace of rioting and demonstrations against Israel, and created new units tasked with sustaining tensions along the border fence including during nighttime and early morning hours.

These nightly riots, in which Palestinians regularly throw grenades and improvised explosives at IDF troops, as well as ongoing airborne arson attacks using balloons carrying incendiary devices, have threatened to spark a new large-scale clash between Hamas and the IDF in Gaza.

“The IDF is prepared and ready for a variety of scenarios and sees the Hamas terror group as responsible for everything that happens in the Gaza Strip and that emanates from it,” the army said.

Meanwhile the Eshkol regional council said in a letter to residents: “Every day and night we are exposed to explosions and incendiary balloons that continue to be launched into our area and to the thick, acrid smoke from the tire fires next to the border.

“In our conversations with political and military figures, we ask them to put an end to the riots and the incidents near our communities, and we support the IDF in all actions needed to do so.”

In an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth daily published Thursday, the leader of the Hamas terror group in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, said he didn’t want any more wars but said an “eruption is inevitable” given the current humanitarian conditions in the Strip — conditions that Israel and some others in the world blame explicitly on Hamas’s poor governance of the coastal enclave.

Both Israel and Egypt enforce a number of restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of Gaza. Israel says the blockade is necessary to keep Hamas and other terror groups in the Strip from arming or building military infrastructure.

A Palestinian protester throws a stone toward Israeli forces during clashes along the border fence, east of Gaza City on September 28, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The humanitarian crisis in Gaza has also worsened, and reconciliation talks with the Palestinian Authority have broken down.

British publication The Telegraph reported Wednesday that in a recent five-hour briefing to Palestinian reporters, Sinwar laid down his new strategy which states that if Israel lifts the Gaza blockade, Hamas and the other Palestinian factions would ensure all rocket launches and other attacks against Israel are stopped.

The Hamas leader reportedly said he is confident that an agreement with Israel can be reached by mid-October, but threatened to cause “chaos” with mass border demonstrations if there is no deal.

A senior Hamas official on Sunday accused Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of fomenting violence in the region and pushing Israel toward a new war in the Gaza Strip.

“Abbas wants to control everything in Gaza; war is good for him,” Mahmoud al-Zahar, a senior leader in the Gaza Strip, told Arab media. Al-Zahar was in Cairo as part of a large delegation from Gaza taking part in talks to reach a Palestinian reconciliation deal and a possible long-term truce with Israel.

The surge of violence in Gaza began in March with the “March of Return” protests along the border, which Israel maintains were directed by Hamas. The clashes have included regular rock and Molotov cocktail attacks on troops, as well as shooting and IED attacks aimed at IDF soldiers, and attempts to breach the border fence.

Gaza protesters have also launched incendiary kites and balloons into Israel, sparking fires that have destroyed forests, burned crops, and killed livestock. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials. Some balloons have carried improvised explosive devices.

Dozens of Palestinians were injured by Israeli fire this week in the wake of heavy clashes on Friday in which seven Palestinians, including two teenagers, were killed, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. The army released footage of the violent demonstrations, which it said were the worst in two months, depicting attempts to breach and sabotage the security fence. The IDF said over 100 improvised bombs and grenades were hurled at troops during the day’s clashes that it said drew some 20,000 Palestinians.

At least 140 Palestinians were killed during the protests since late March, according to AP figures. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of the fatalities were its members.

On Friday, the Haaretz daily quoted Israeli security sources as saying that Hamas is preparing for war, bolstering its forces significantly over the past few weeks.

That assessment is not new, IDF sources told Haaretz, having warned repeatedly that the situation is more likely to escalate than to calm down. However, recently the army noted that the terror group appears to actively be readying itself for a limited conflict with Israel. It is only a question of when Hamas will decide to go to war, the paper said.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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