With tensions rising in the south amid fears that the Islamic Jihad terror group will attempt to avenge a tunnel demolition two weeks ago, the Israeli military is finding that striking a delicate balance between keeping terror groups from preparing for a future war and keeping the region relatively calm is easier said than done.
While neither side may be gunning for a fight, a miscalculation by the IDF runs the risk of triggering a bloody tit-for-tat fight that can lead to all-out war.
For the past two weeks, the military has been trying to prevent such an escalation as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group has vowed revenge for the the army’s demolition of its attack tunnel that crossed into Israeli territory from Gaza.
Israel Defense Forces troops in southern Israel have been on alert following last month’s tunnel razing.
In the army’s most recent measure, on Monday it deployed its Iron Dome missile defense system in central Israel — including at least one battery in the greater Tel Aviv region — out of concerns the group may retaliate with a barrage of rockets.
In addition to preparing for attack, the Israeli military has also been trying to prevent one, repeatedly warning against a retaliation in direct addresses to both the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Strip’s rulers, Hamas.
The army blew up the tunnel, which originated in the Gazan city of Khan Younis and crossed into Israeli territory, near Kibbutz Kissufim, on October 30.
In total, 14 terrorists were killed, two of them from Hamas and the rest from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including two senior commanders. The bodies of five of the Islamic Jihad terrorists, who were working on the tunnel inside Israeli territory, were recovered by the IDF a few days later.
But according to the army, this high body count was not intentional. The goal for the operation, per the IDF, was the destruction of the tunnel, not assassination. In comments after the blast, IDF officials also noted that many of the terrorists died not in the explosion, but in botched rescue attempts.
But the military stressed it does not regret the deaths of terrorists, after facing backlash from politicians who interpreted the officers’ comments as apologetic.
In light of the body count, the military determined that the group “will have a hard time holding back.”
Incidentally, Tuesday also marks five years since the IDF killed then-Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari in an airstrike, which sparked the week-long Operation Pillar of Defense campaign in Gaza. Palestinian terror groups have been known to carry out attacks to coincide with significant anniversaries.
Former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin praised the military on Monday for preparing to counter the threats from Gaza, but warned it not to forget that “the northern front is Israel’s main focus — Assad, Hezbollah, and Iran will seek to challenge the IDF.”
On Saturday, Israel shot down a drone from Syria with a Patriot missile in the third such incident this year, which military officials say is an indication of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s increasing brazenness in light of his successes in the country’s civil war.
The army’s top brass and Israeli government officials are also currently locked in intense discussion with their American and Russian counterparts concerning a ceasefire agreement for southern Syria, especially the distance from Israel’s borders that Iran-backed militias will be allowed to operate.
While Iranian entrenchment along the Golan border presents a far greater strategic threat to Israel’s security in the long term, the more pressing concern seems to be the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which could attack at any time.
IDF tells Islamic Jihad: Move on
When the IDF uncovered two Hamas attack tunnels that also crossed into Israeli territory last year, there was also concern of a potential retaliation, but this faded fairly rapidly. In those cases, however, there were no terrorist casualties, as in last month’s demolition.
Late Saturday night, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, published a video message in Arabic directed to the Islamic Jihad leaders in Damascus, telling them that the IDF is aware of the group’s terror plots and that they are “playing with fire.”
“We are aware of the plot that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is planning against Israel,” Mordechai said.
“Let it be clear: Any attack by the Islamic Jihad will be met with a powerful and determined Israeli response, not only against the Jihad, but also against Hamas,” warned the general.
The group responded a day later, saying the Israeli threats against its leaders constituted “an act of war,” and vowing to continue to try to carry out a revenge attack against Israel.
“We reaffirm our right to respond to any aggression, including our right to respond to the crime of aggression on the resistance tunnel,” Islamic Jihad said.
In the eyes of the military, its strike on the tunnel was entirely justified, legally and morally, as it entered Israeli territory and threatened Israeli civilians. As such, the army feels, while it may smart, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad needs to just count its losses and move on.
“They violated Israeli sovereignty. They were conducting an act of hostility against Israel. We were able to thwart that, and that is the end of the sentence,” said army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus in an extended interview with the Israel Project’s podcast on Monday.
“And if they will try to aggress again, that will be met with significant resolve and power,” Conricus added.
On Monday, Israeli forces arrested a top commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, in what seems to be a non-verbal deterrent message to the terrorist group.
The Shin Bet security service confirmed that Tariq Qa’adan, a senior officer in the Gaza-based terror group’s West Bank wing, was picked up by the IDF in Arrabeh, southwest of Jenin, in the northern West Bank.
A Shin Bet official said Qa’adan was arrested “for being a member of a terrorist group.”
According to Yadlin, who now runs the esteemed Institute for National Security Studies think tank, the messages put out by Mordechai and the army’s spokesperson’s office are important tools to prevent escalation and also show a significant change in tack by the military since the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
“The messages and warnings that Israel has been sending to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) over the last couple of days are not incidental, but actually indicate concrete intel according to which PIJ plans to respond to the destruction of his terror tunnel into Israel,” Yadlin wrote on Twitter.
“It seems Israel learned the lessons of Operation Protective Edge, and this time it will focus on hitting the heads of the organizations (with a particular focus on the chiefs of their military/terror branches) and their operational infrastructure,” he said.