ToI in Gaza

On both sides of Gaza’s border, the IDF is remaking security from the (under)ground up

From a buffer zone to attack drones and more troops, the army plans to keep Israel safe by taking a zero-tolerance approach to tunnel building or any other disturbance

A soldier stands near the border between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip on January 31, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)
A soldier stands near the border between southern Israel and the Gaza Strip on January 31, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

KHUZA’A, Gaza Strip — Fewer than two kilometers (1.2 miles) separates the towns of Khuza’a from Kibbutz Nir Oz. The land between the Gazan and Israeli communities is taken up by a patchwork of neat farm fields and a fence that Hamas commandos from Khuza’a tore through with ease on October 7.

The terrorists of Hamas’s elite Nukhba force that invaded Nir Oz made the journey from Khuza’a in minutes, equipped with maps and motorcycles. Hours later, they left behind a demolished kibbutz soaked in the blood of 38 slain victims, taking 77 hostages with them.

To ensure such horrors never occur again, the army, while fighting a war inside Gaza, is also fundamentally reconceiving how it defends Israel, especially the towns closest to the Palestinian enclave.

The process will see the military shift away from more passive defensive measures to the adoption of a security doctrine that will see Gazans pushed away from the border and a beefed-up force along the fence actively engaged in keeping Israeli towns safe by building deterrence, according to a well-placed defense source who briefed The Times of Israel on the development of plans for securing the border with Gaza. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Standing near the barrier separating Khuza’a from Israel on Monday, echoes of gunfire and explosions could be heard from battles taking place in Khan Younis, just a few kilometers to the west.

Nir Oz is hard to miss from the Gazan side of the fence. Even from the town of Abasan, a bit deeper inside Gaza, the kibbutz’s paint factory, Nirlat, is perenially visible.

File: A Gaza farmer carries a bundle of wheat on a farm near the border with Israel, in the village of Khuza’a on Friday, May 20, 2022. (AP/Adel Hana)

A walk through the farmland near the fence outside Khuza’a and Abasan can feel misleadingly pastoral, until one notices markers placed by Israel Defense Forces troops to indicate the entrance to a tunnel.

The underground passage is what the IDF terms as an “approach tunnel” — it begins at the first line of houses in Khuza’a and leads to the fence.

The opening of this particular tunnel, just a few dozen paces from the fence, was discovered by chance when smoke began to rise from the ground following an airstrike in an urban area elsewhere on the tunnel’s route.

Israeli troops in an underground Hamas tunnel in Gaza, February 4, 2024. (Photo by Israeli Army / AFP)

Until the war, the IDF turned a blind eye to the construction of tunnels throughout the Strip due to a tacit agreement with Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar designed to de-escalate tensions. Israel estimates that there are hundreds of approach tunnels near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip, meant to allow terrorist cells to mount a surprise attack on the fence.

On October 7, however, Hamas terrorists did not use the tunnels. Instead, they stormed the fence in plain sight, broke through the barrier in multiple locations and dashed toward Israeli towns uninterrupted.

An interrogation of a Hamas prisoner revealed that the plan was to use the tunnel system for a second wave of attackers, though in the end those who broke into Israel later on October 7 also did not need to bother hiding underground.

Hamas terrorists near Kibbutz Nir Oz during the massacre on October 7, 2023. (AP Photo/Hassan Eslaiah)

The tunnels were only used later when Israeli ground forces moved into the Gaza Strip, allowing Nukhba forces to attempt to sneak up on soldiers deep inside the enclave.

The IDF was surprised by the number of tunnels that were discovered, especially in the south of the Gaza Strip. Israeli intelligence knew Hamas had invested significant time and resources in the project, but underestimated its scope.

The army has found that Hamas built its subterranean warren in this area in an organized way, with a feeder tunnel deep inside Gaza connecting passages that stretch toward the border, allowing it to secretly move large numbers of forces toward Israel.

The system was seemingly built out from the remains of Hamas’s attack tunnel network that it used to mount sneak assaults inside Israel during the 2014 war. Though Israel destroyed much of that system, Hamas not only repaired it in the nine intervening years, but expanded it as well.

Palestinians visit their homes destroyed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip in the village of Khuza’a, east of Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Sunday, Nov. 26, 2023. (AP/Adel Hana)

The IDF has said that a zero-tolerance approach to tunnel digging will be part of its post-war operational standards; any identification of tunnel digging will be immediately attacked on the ground or by air.

The source described the protocol as a “lawnmower working systematically over the next few years to nip any threat in the bud.”

Buffer zones

The Sisyphean task of destroying the tunnel network, which has fallen to the IDF’s Combat Engineering Corps, is part of a larger plan to create a buffer zone along the border. Officials are careful to use the term “buffer zone” and not “security zone” lest it harkens back to the southern Lebanon security zone maintained by the IDF from 1985 to 2000 and regarded internationally as a military occupation.

The decision to create a buffer zone was made early in the war, after the events of October 7 led the military to conclude that an early warning apparatus relying on intelligence and surveillance was insufficient to protect Israeli towns near the Gaza border. Commanders in the field found that it would be necessary to shift away from passive defense to actively meeting each threat with a strong operational response.

Homes demolished to create buffer belt in Khuza’a, Gaza Strip, March 18, 2024. (Amir Bar Shalom)

Since receiving a green light from the government, the army has been working to clear a one-kilometer-wide (0.6-mile) strip of land running along the border, inside Gaza, for the buffer zone.

Besides destroying dozens of kilometers of tunnels, creating the zone includes clearing away any vegetation, including farm fields, and razing homes or other buildings.

The destruction is evident in Khuza’a, whose eastern edge practically kisses the border. Houses that sat only a few hundred meters (1,000 feet or more) from the fence before the war are now mostly reduced to rubble.

Buildings razed in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, as part of the army’s efforts to establish a buffer zone on the border with the Gaza Strip, in an image provided by the IDF on January 10, 2024. The Israel-Gaza border runs across the bottom of the picture. (Israel Defense Forces)

The army is still working on the administrative plan for the buffer zone: how it will look, what capabilities it will include, what the rules will be for opening fire on those who enter, and whether there will be a visible demarcation of where it begins.

The work is being done in conjunction with the military’s legal division, which may one day have to defend the decision to expropriate a chunk of land from the Gaza Strip.

Outposts, drones and armed locals

Along with the buffer inside Gaza, the IDF is planning moves that will fundamentally transform its defense posture on the Israeli side of the fence. In the past, the risk of an invasion from Gaza ranked near the bottom of what the IDF considered to be a probable threat. But now, it is the logical point to underpin a new defense doctrine, which will see a buildup of forces and the development of new operational protocols.

This will include a line of military outposts to be built along the fence and next to communities near the border, promising a massive military presence and immediate response to threats.

IDF soldiers seen at a staging area near the Israeli-Gaza border, March 10, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

On the morning of October 7, there were four IDF battalions stationed along the border with Gaza, comprising a few thousand soldiers. That number will now double, if not more.

The military is also expediting existing plans to move the Gaza Division’s Northern Brigade’s headquarters to a new building closer to its area of operation, rather than being commanded from the same base near Re’im where the Gaza Division and its other brigade is also headquartered. On October 7, terrorists managed to pin down the division’s complete command structure by launching a massive assault on the base, disrupting its ability to coordinate an effective response to the multifaceted Hamas onslaught across the south.

Along with manpower, firepower will also be beefed up. Hamas’s explosive drones largely disabled IDF equipment stationed near the fence to surveil the border and to remotely fire at suspects approaching the border. Now, the army is looking to both improve those systems and add a large number of attack drones to the bag of tools at troops’ disposal, giving soldiers stationed on the border the ability to deploy air power before the Air Force can arrive.

Beyond that, the IDF is replanning its surveillance array, adding tools and allowing troops to control various surveillance systems from multiple places at the same time.

Illustrative: An Israeli soldier prepares a drone to be launched near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, January 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

One plan already nearing implementation is the creation of a quick response counterterror reserves force made up of residents living near the Gaza border with experience in special forces. The unit is modeled on LOTAR Eilat, a counterterror unit made up of residents of the Red Sea city and others in the area, which has been called upon several times to respond to terror incidents before other forces could arrive.

The unit’s volunteers train once a week and engage in advanced training once a month. Permanent emergency teams within the unit remain in place even when others are called to fight elsewhere, ensuring that civilians are continually protected.

Back to 2002

The more apt parallel to how defense in the south will look after the war, however, may be to the West Bank, where the IDF protects settler communities and secures the barrier with Israel while also implementing offensive operations aimed at diffusing any terror threat that may emerge from Palestinian areas.

IDF soldiers seen during an Israeli military raid at the Al-Amari refugee camp near Ramallah, in the West Bank, March 4, 2024. (Flash90)

The situation in Gaza and on the Israeli side of the border today is not unlike the end of Operation Defensive Shield, a massive military operation in the West Bank launched in 2002 to stem the terror of the second intifada, including large incursions into Palestinian cities.

Then, as now, Israel struggled with how it could maintain the operation’s gains once fighting ended and troops pulled back. The difference is that Hamas in Gaza is much stronger, and has ground infrastructure that didn’t exist in the West Bank in 2002.

It’s clear that even after the war ends, troops will need to continue operating inside Gaza. Once the buffer zone is established, the army is hoping to build up deterrence by deploying an immediate response to any possible disturbance, keeping things from snowballing out of control. On Tuesday, for instance, forces in Khuza’a fired warning shots multiple times at Palestinian civilians trying to reach homes in the buffer zone.

Israeli forces are deployed near Kibbutz Nir Oz at the Gaza-Israel border on April 6, 2018. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

October 7 did not begin on that bloody morning. For years, Gazans chipped away at Israel’s deterrence with seemingly small-scale acts like launching incendiary balloons and noisy border riots.

These provocations escalated into the massacre in which Hamas rampaged through the south murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 others. This time, the army does not plan on giving any inches.

“The principle will be clear,” said the defense source. “The rate of destruction of [Hamas’s abilities] and the erosion of its powers will be higher than the rate at which it can build them back up. Only that way can we ensure that what was will be no more.”

This article first appeared in Hebrew here on The Times of Israel’s sister site Zman Yisrael.

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