Gaza infiltration puts IDF limitations on display at the worst possible time

Unlike the Iron Dome snafu, which showed the army being overly cautious, the 3 armed Gazans who walked 20 km into Israel exposed a major weakness just ahead of an expected flare-up

Judah Ari Gross

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

Three armed Palestinian men walk past Kibbutz Tzeelim in southern Israel after breaking through the security fence around the Gaza Strip on March 27, 2018. (Screen capture)
Three armed Palestinian men walk past Kibbutz Tzeelim in southern Israel after breaking through the security fence around the Gaza Strip on March 27, 2018. (Screen capture)

Israelis would be right to be worried about the infiltration of three armed Palestinian men from Gaza deep into southern Israel on Tuesday, not because of any ill intentions the three harbored, but for what seems to be a startling failure by a military supposedly on heightened alert.

The incident prompted both the defense minister and local governments to demand answers for how it happened and what can be done to prevent similar incidents in the future.

It took the army several hours to even realize that there had been a breach of the security fence. By that time, the suspects, who were in possession of knives and hand grenades, were close to the Tzeelim army base, over 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Gaza border, where they were eventually caught after the facility’s security officers thought they looked suspicious.

At least in the last few kilometers, the Palestinian men did not appear to be trying to avoid detection or capture. Video footage from the area shows them walking calmly in the middle of the road, past yellow wildflowers and open fields, not ducking behind trees or hiding from security cameras.

“This was an incident that shouldn’t have happened,” IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis said with magnificent understatement after the men were captured.

Besides this being a serious breach in its own right, the timing makes it still worse for the military, coming at a period when the Israel Defense Forces is meant to be on high alert in light of increased tensions along the Gaza border.

Palestinian youngsters hide and hold flags as they demonstrate near Khan Yunis by the border fence between Israel and the southern Gaza Strip on March 16, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

The army has been preparing for a massive protest in Gaza scheduled for Friday, during which thousands of demonstrators are expected to take part and potentially try to break through the security fence.

This was the second border-breaching incident in under a week. On Saturday, a group of four Palestinians cut through the security fence in southern Gaza and tried to set fire to the heavy machinery being used to construct a massive above- and below-ground barrier around Gaza.

In that case, however, the four masked men spent just a few minutes inside Israeli territory before they fled back into Gaza as IDF troops arrived at the scene.

The army already had egg on its face after a spectacularly unnecessary use of the Iron Dome missile defense system earlier this week, when the booming interceptors set off incoming rocket sirens and sent thousands of residents of southern Israel rushing into bomb shelters in the middle of the night when no rockets had actually been fired.

The Tuesday infiltration didn’t set off any actual alarm bells, but the symbolic ones tripped by the incident will likely echo for days to come. Whereas the Iron Dome deployment was seen as a case of the army being overly cautious — the battery was set off by machine-gun fire during a Hamas drill inside the Strip — the infiltration Tuesday exposed a major weak point in the army’s preparedness.

On Tuesday afternoon, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said he’d demanded that a full report on the infiltration be put on his desk by Thursday.

Heads of local governments and communities in the area also called for a thorough investigation of the incident.

Unclear what suspects were doing

While Palestinians frequently try to enter Israeli territory from the coastal enclave, they are typically arrested on the spot by IDF soldiers, as the Gaza security fence — though aging and due to be replaced in the coming year — is studded with sensors and monitored continuously by soldiers watching through closed circuit cameras.

The army is not yet sure when exactly the men broke through the security fence, but it appears to have been some time early on Tuesday morning when there was fog in the area. As they managed to walk over 20 kilometers into Israeli territory, they had to have crossed at least three hours before they were caught outside the Tzeelim army base at approximately 10:30 a.m.

This amount of time is not unprecedented — in August 2016, a Gaza man spent nearly a full day in Israel before he was caught. Nor is it uncommon for Palestinians to enter Israel from Gaza armed with knives or grenades — this happened earlier this month and in February. But the combination of these elements makes Tuesday’s infiltration highly irregular.

Grenades, knives and tools found in the possession of three Palestinian suspects who crossed into Israel from the Gaza Strip and were caught outside the Tzeelim army base in southern Israel on March 27, 2018. (Israel Police)

Security forces have yet to determine what the three men meant to do in Israel, though the grenades and knives found in their possession plainly indicate nefarious plans.

Yet the suspects — members of the same family from the southern Gaza city of Rafah — had ample opportunity to carry out a terror attack in their 20 kilometer trek toward the Tzeelim army base.

For instance, a surveillance video from Kibbutz Tzeelim, located just up the road from the base, shows the men walking past the community’s open gate. They then can be seen walking back toward the kibbutz and then continuing on their way down the Route 222 highway.

This has led to two main assumptions: either they were specifically targeting the Tzeelim army base, which is known for being an important IDF training facility especially for soldiers about to be stationed along the Gaza border, or the Palestinians were not planning to conduct an attack and were instead waiting to get caught.

This latter option is not unheard of. There have been cases of Gaza residents hoping to get arrested by crossing the border with a weapon, in the belief that life in Israeli prison is preferable to that in the Hamas-ruled Strip.

But for now their intentions are a matter for speculation. The Shin Bet security service said that as of Tuesday evening it could not yet comment on the suspects’ motives as they were still being interrogated.

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