First IDF-Islamic State clash sends Israeli message: Don’t mess with us
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Analysis'I'm happy that they paid the price immediately,' says one expert

First IDF-Islamic State clash sends Israeli message: Don’t mess with us

For years, army officials have warned of attacks by terror groups in Syria; Sunday's border skirmish in which 4 militants were killed was brief, 'productive,' and unlikely to mark a new era

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

IDF forces on the Golan Heights, northern Israel, January 20, 2015. (Basal Awidat/Flash90)
IDF forces on the Golan Heights, northern Israel, January 20, 2015. (Basal Awidat/Flash90)

A short exchange of gunfire between an Islamic State-affiliated terrorist group and Israeli troops on Sunday morning, which ended with an IDF airstrike that killed four militants, represented the first notable clash between the two groups.

But experts do not see it heralding a major shift in the dynamics of the region.

On Sunday morning, at approximately 8:30 a.m., soldiers from the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance unit crossed the security fence with Syria to conduct an “ambush operation.” While remaining inside Israeli territory, the soldiers came under attack from Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, formerly known as the Yarmouk Martyr’s Brigade, an army spokesperson said.

The soldiers returned small arms fire, but soon came under attack from mortar shells as well. The incident concluded when the Israel Air Force targeted a truck “that had some sort of machine gun on top of it” and killed the four terrorists who were riding in it.

“It was a short exchange, but it was productive,” IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Peter Lerner concluded.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Haifa on November 27, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Dan Balilty)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures as he chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Haifa on November 27, 2016 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / Dan Balilty)

Speaking at a weekly government meeting soon after the incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised that Israel “won’t allow Islamic State figures or other enemy actors, under the cover of the war in Syria, to set up next to our borders.”

However, both the IS-affiliated Khalid ibn al-Walid Army and the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda, have been set up on Israel’s borders for years.

Members of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in Syria, an affiliate group of the Islamic State (YouTube screenshot)
Members of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in Syria, an affiliate group of the Islamic State (YouTube screenshot)

Despite a relatively long-lasting “live and let live” relationship with these groups, the IDF has warned of a potential — some say inevitable — conflict with them and has been preparing to respond to cross-border attacks.

Sunday saw the first case of an IS affiliate deliberately attacking Israeli troops inside Israel. (Numerous mortar shells have fallen inside Israel, some of which may have been fired by these terrorist groups, though most were likely spillover from the fighting in Syria, rather than a directed attack.)

Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Uriel in an undated photograph. (Arielinson/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)
Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Uriel in an undated photograph. (Arielinson/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The incident ended relatively quickly and with no Israeli troops injured — a success, according to Brig. Gen. (res.) Nitzan Nuriel, who spoke to reporters as part of a press conference organized by The Israel Project.

“I’m happy that they paid the price immediately. I believe that the message was strong enough and simple enough: Don’t mess with us. We do not cross the border. We take actions on the Israeli side, and therefore you cannot open fire against us. If you do, you’ll pay the price,” Nuriel said.

‘I don’t think that someone’s going to make a decision to open a new front against us. This is the last thing that ISIS needs’

According to Nuriel, who formerly served as an operations officer in the Northern Command and as head of the Prime Minister’s Office’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau, operations like the one on Sunday are meant to prevent enemy forces from setting up too close to the Israeli border.

“Israeli special forces and other forces take actions from time to time in what we call the ‘gray area,’ the pocket between the fence and the official border with [Syria],” Nuriel said.

Generally speaking, these campaigns by Israeli troops near the border go undisturbed by the various groups involved in the fighting in the Syrian civil war, who look to steer clear of the IDF and concentrate on their conflict.

“I don’t think that someone’s going to make a decision to open a new front against us. This is the last thing that ISIS needs,” he added, using one of the terror group’s many acronyms.

Amos Yadlin speaks at an IsraPresse event for the French-speaking community at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Jerusalem, February 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Amos Yadlin speaks at an IsraPresse event for the French-speaking community at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, Jerusalem, February 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

According to Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin, a former Military Intelligence chief, this clash could indicate a change by the Islamic State and its affiliates, which may look to make up for their battlefield losses with a public relations win, i.e., an attack on Israel.

“We don’t know yet if this is a change in the policy of Daesh or just an occasional, unplanned exchange of fire,” he said, using the Arabic nickname for the Islamic State.

“As we know they are under pressure everywhere,” he said, referring to the campaigns against the terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. “So maybe it’s a way to say, ‘We’re fighting Israel, come with us.'”

However, both Yadlin and Nuriel found this explanation less likely than the alternative, namely that it was a spur-of-the-moment decision by a low-level commander.

“Maybe it’s a way to say, ‘We’re fighting Israel, come with us.”‘

“I think today was not a planned strategy, but we’ll have to wait and see,” said Yadlin, director of the Institute for National Security Studies think tank.

“I believe that the decision to open fire against our soldiers was a local decision. It was not something that came from any upper echelon headquarter,” Nuriel added.

Yadlin’s analysis was partially based on the type of attack carried out on the border: a small-scale exchange of light arms and mortar shells — far from the doomsday scenario facing the Jewish state vis-a-vis the Islamic State.

“This is not the worst case [scenario]. The Daesh-style attack is normally a truck that is loaded with explosives or suicide bombers — this is not what we saw this morning,” he said.

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