An initial investigation of Thursday morning’s attack on a military patrol outside the Gaza Strip revealed that in addition to the two improvised explosive devices detonated along the security fence, an anti-tank missile was also apparently fired at the troops, the army said.
The army described the early-morning attack as “very serious,” despite the fact that no soldiers were injured and no significant damage was caused to the vehicle.
The Israel Defense Forces had yet to determine which terror group was responsible for the attack, but was working to figure it out, army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said.
The officer indicated that this attack appeared to be part of a growing trend by Palestinian terrorist groups, notably Gaza’s ruler Hamas, to use the regular riots and demonstrations that take place along the Gaza border as cover for military activities.
“We will not allow Hamas to turn the security fence into a combat zone,” Conricus told reporters.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, the two IEDs were set off at approximately 6:00 a.m. inside Gaza, approximately 100 meters (328 feet) from the security fence, west of the Israeli community of Nahal Oz. The bombs were not detonated simultaneously, but with a delay of a few minutes.
The target of the attack was a group of soldiers traveling in an army vehicle as part of a “routine patrol” along the Israeli side of the Gaza border, Conricus said.
We will not allow Hamas to turn the security fence into a combat zone
It was not yet known what type of charges were used in the attack. Few varieties of IEDs could cause damage from that distance, making their exact purpose unclear, Conricus said.
“One hundred meters is a significant distance. It’s not unheard of, but it is a large distance to try to hit a target,” he said.
The army was reviewing its security footage and collecting other evidence in order to determine if an anti-tank missile was also shot at the patrol, Conricus said.
The officer said the army’s “working assumption” was that a rocket-propelled grenade had been fired, but did not hit anything.
This would be the first such attack since the 2014 Gaza war.
According to Conricus, the attack caused only minimal damage to the soldiers’ vehicle — “basically just to the paintwork.”
It was unclear how the explosives had been set up along the security fence, though Conricus noted that Wednesday night was particularly foggy and that violent demonstrations had taken place in the area this week, both of which could have given cover for terrorists positioning the IEDs.
The officer would not elaborate on how exactly Israel planned to keep Palestinians away from the border area, noting that it presented technical challenges as the army tries to strike a balance between securing the area and keeping casualties to a minimum.
Last week, Israeli forces used an unmanned aerial vehicle to drop tear gas on protesters along the Gaza border, in what appears to be the first use of a drone for this purpose.
Asked if such measures would be used in the future, Conricus said the army was still “evaluating best practices” for responding to riots along the fence.
Fridays are the most common days among Palestinians for protests, often with hundreds of Gazans rioting along the security fence, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails toward the Israeli troops on the other side. A particularly large demonstration is also planned for March 30, referred to by Palestinians as Land Day, which commemorates the expropriation of Arab-owned land in the Galilee by the Israeli government.
In response to the attack, the army used both tanks and aircraft to strike five positions in Gaza belonging to Hamas and the Iran-funded Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist organization, Conricus said.
The targeting of PIJ represents a slight change in Israel’s policies regarding retaliation to attacks from Gaza.
In the past, the IDF would hold only Hamas accountable for any act of violence emanating from the Strip, regardless of which group perpetrates it.
The army has, in the past, targeted Islamic Jihad sites, but this is generally in response to attacks believed to have been committed by the terrorist group.
It was not immediately clear if the Israeli shelling caused any Palestinian casualties. Some local outlets reported that two people, presumably Hamas members, were killed, while others said that was incorrect.
Conricus said the army was aware of the reports and was still investigating the issue.
On Twitter, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry called on local officials to notify it of anyone injured or killed.
Palestinian media reported that the targets were Hamas observation sites near Gaza City and Beit Hanoun, in the northern Strip.
A video apparently from Beit Hanoun showed the moment an Israeli bomb hit a target, sending smoke and debris into the air.
Improvised explosive devices have long been a concern for the IDF in Gaza, as they are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce and can be set off remotely. In light of the threat, the army has a number of protocols for how to deal with suspicious objects near the security fence so explosives can be disarmed or destroyed in a controlled explosion.
Last month, four IDF soldiers were injured when an IED was detonated along the southern Gaza fence. During a violent protest, members of the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committees umbrella terrorist group approached the border fence and placed a Palestinian flag on it. The following day, when IDF troops from the Golani Brigade and the Combat Engineering Corps approached the fence to remove the flag, an IED detonated, wounding the soldiers, two of them seriously.
In response to that attack, and to a rocket fired from Gaza that hit a home in southern Israel late Saturday night, the IDF conducted a series of strikes against 18 targets in the Strip, including on an attack tunnel entrance in Gaza City, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said at the time.
Following February’s IED attack, senior defense officials have released public statements in Arabic and Hebrew aimed at Gaza’s population, warning residents not to approach the fence.
The IDF reportedly eased its open-fire restrictions in response to the heightened tensions, allowing soldiers to use lethal fire to prevent similar approaches to the border fence in future. Snipers have also been stationed along the border for that purpose, along with other forces.