The Israel Defense Forces sent additional troops to the Gaza border ahead of protests organized by Hamas planned for Wednesday, with the military facing rising tensions on the frontier, alongside growing criticism following a weekend border riot in which a soldier was shot and severely wounded.
Gazan terrorists continued to launch arson balloons into Israel on Tuesday, hours after the IDF struck the Strip from the air late Monday, raising fears that the low-simmer fighting could snowball into a larger confrontation.
The military said that it would make changes to its deployment along the border, after an initial probe into Saturday’s border violence identified a number of failures in the way the army responded to the riots.
Investigators believe a series of mistakes allowed Gazan rioters to reach a group of snipers posted behind a concrete wall, including a man with a pistol who shot soldier Barel Shmueli in the head from point-blank range. Dozens of Palestinians were also injured by Israeli fire during the rioting.
Though the full probe was still underway, the military planned to alter its strategies on the border, sending additional soldiers to the area and updating its rules of engagement to ensure that protesters would not be able to approach the security fence again, the army said.
The military had been criticized after troops apparently held their fire on Saturday to avoid civilian casualties, allowing the rioters to reach the border.
“In recent days, troops have been preparing massively, as specific plans were being approved, drills were performed at different points and reviews were held in the field. IDF troops will act aggressively against attempts at terror along the border,” the military said in a statement.
The changes were approved on Tuesday by the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, following a situational assessment.
Relatives of Shmueli have criticized the military for the missteps that led to him being shot and some on Tuesday called for Toledano to be fired.
The deployments come after Gaza-based Palestinian factions said that they will hold a major rally on Wednesday in the southern Gaza Strip, near the border with Israel.
According to schedules published by Hamas-aligned media, buses will transport demonstrators from across southern Gaza to Al-Awda Camp outside of Khan Younis to participate in the rally. The event was given a slogan by its organizers, “the Sword of Jerusalem shall not be sheathed,” a reference to Hamas’s name for the May battle between Gaza and Israel.
“We call our compatriots in Gaza to actively participate in mass peaceful activities titled ‘the Sword of Jerusalem shall not be sheathed’ that reject the blockade and Judaiziation,” so-called Palestinian “resistance” factions said in a statement carried by Hamas-linked media.
The flareup is the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza since May, when they fought an 11-day war.
Recent weeks have seen growing violence along the Gaza border, with terror groups launching balloon-borne incendiary devices into Israel and a rocket attack last Monday — the first since May’s 11-day conflict.
Though Israel holds Hamas ultimately responsible for the violence, as the de facto ruler of the Gaza Strip, Israel does not necessarily believe that the terror group’s leadership is directly ordering these attacks, and it appears that the group is working to limit them.
Egypt, whose military intelligence played a key role in brokering the current ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, closed its crossing with the Gaza Strip on Sunday, in response to the violence on the border over the weekend, and reportedly called for the terror group to halt any further aggression.
Airborne arson attacks on Monday sparked at least nine fires in southern Israel, and the incendiary balloon launches continued on Tuesday, though there were no immediate reports of fires inside Israel.
The IDF carried out airstrikes against Hamas targets in Gaza late Monday night in response to the arson attacks. The military said that it hit a Hamas weapons factory in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, the entrance to a tunnel in Jabaliya and an underground rocket launcher in Gaza City.
On Tuesday, Hamas-backed terrorists in Gaza said that they would not be deterred from launching incendiary balloons by Israeli strikes.
“Our message is clear and explicit. This siege must be broken,” said one balloon launcher, who identified himself as Abu Omar. “We will not be intimidated by any threats.”
The recent violence has largely been driven by demands from Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza that Israel allow additional funds and goods into the beleaguered enclave, though last Monday’s rocket fire was believed to have been in response to the deaths of four Palestinians in a shootout with Israeli troops in the northern West Bank city of Jenin the night before.
For months, Israel and Hamas have held indirect negotiations to set the terms for a new status quo. In the aftermath of May’s fighting, Israel has maintained heightened restrictions on Gaza, significantly limiting imports and exports and complicating the reconstruction of the battered enclave.
There appeared to be a breakthrough in the stalled indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas last week, when Qatar and the United Nations announced that they had created a new mechanism for moving aid into the Gaza Strip that Defense Minister Benny Gantz said would prevent the money from reaching Hamas.
However, Jerusalem has refused to increase the amount of reconstruction material into the Gaza Strip, unless Hamas releases two Israeli civilians and the remains of two soldiers from captivity.
Aaron Boxerman and agencies contributed to this report.