A top commander in the Israeli army said Thursday that if Iran finds itself in trouble in Syria, it could again mobilize its ally in Gaza, Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), to attack Israel as a distraction.
The senior officer in the IDF’s Southern Command, in a briefing to Israeli journalists, also said Hamas and PIJ had improved their combat tactics in this week’s round of cross-border violence by launching many rockets and mortars from underground positions, and using timers to delay the launches until their fighters were no longer around to be targeted.
He said Israel had “expected” Islamic Jihad to launch an offensive, explaining that the terror group has had an account to settle ever since Israel exposed and destroyed a tunnel belonging to it earlier this year. “Its command center is abroad, and from there it receives its orders with Iranian consent,” he said.
“The group has an approval by its commanders abroad to carry out terror attacks against us,” the officer said. “After it tried to carry out an attack at the beginning of this week and we killed three of the group’s combatants, we understood it was going to react.
“We didn’t know when it would come, but we prepared. We told community heads that gunfire could be directed at posts and communities. Everyone in this area knows what to do in such situations.”
On Tuesday, the Gaza-based Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist groups launched more than 100 rockets and mortar shells at Israel, prompting dozens of retaliatory airstrikes. Four Israelis were hurt, including a soldier who suffered moderate injuries, and projectiles caused damage to a kindergarten yard an hour before the children arrived, and to a home as a family slept in a fortified room inside.
Following criticism in Israel that the military failed to prevent any launchings by identifying the launchers ahead of time, the officer said the groups had improved their tactics.
He denied that there were orders not to hit and kill the terrorists. “There were orders to locate and attack the cells, but the enemy has improved and learnt lessons. A large portion of the launches was done with timers and from underground.”
The senior officer said that Hamas only joined the offensive after the IDF struck targets in response to the two initial barrages fired by Islamic Jihad.
He said Israel was the “closest” it had been to war in four years, since the 2014 Gaza War, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
“Israel needs to insert other stabilizing factors to the conflict with Gaza. Small steps can be made to give 12-18 months of calm, and we can reach a long-term arrangement,” the officer said.
“We are at a crossroads. We brought Hamas to its toughest state, and it’s good we did so. [But] if we don’t stabilize the situation, we risk entering a slippery slope and being the reactors instead of the initiators.
“Hamas shouldn’t be helped, but the extent of its willingness for concessions in development, [weapons] tests, power-building, smuggling and terror shows it is willing to talk about everything to save itself from collapsing. They understand the only solution other than an arrangement is war, and are doing everything to prevent a war.”
“Starting in the afternoon hours, we began getting messages from Hamas saying ‘Calm it down, don’t escalate it.’ We prepared an aerial strike for 11:00 p.m. and hit very important targets, capabilities they developed over a long time,” he explained.
He said the targets included sites linked to Hamas’s marine commando forces, research and development facilities, and posts.
“During the evening, both organizations understood the gravity of the damage they had been dealt, spoke about a ceasefire, and conveyed messages that they wanted to stop the launches,” he said. “This will be difficult for Hamas to deal with. [The strikes] dealt significant damage to abilities Hamas had been preparing for the next battle.”
The officer added that the Southern Command was preparing for a mass protest in the Strip next Tuesday organized by Hamas to mark “Naksa Day,” when Palestinians commemorate the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War and its takeover of the West Bank and Gaza.
“Anywhere they try to breach, they’ll run into a wall. We are preparing for Naksa Day similarly to the previous protests. If they arrive, they will be blocked again.”
On Tuesday, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, and other assorted terror groups in the Gaza Strip fired scores of mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel over the course of 22 hours. The army said more than 100 of the projectiles fired were on a trajectory to hit Israel, while many more were apparently launched but failed to clear the border.
Most of the incoming projectiles that were heading toward populated areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, though several exploded inside Israeli towns and communities, causing damage to buildings and injuring four people, three of them soldiers.
In response, the army conducted two rounds of air raids in the Gaza Strip, striking more than 65 targets, including a Hamas attack tunnel, the military said.
Tensions along the Gaza border have soared in recent weeks amidst violent border protests led by Hamas.
Since March 30, tens of thousands of Palestinians have taken part in weekly protests which Israel says are used by the terror group as cover for attempted terror attacks and breaches of the border fence.
Protesters have attacked soldiers at the border with bombs, rocks, and Molotov cocktails, burning tires and repeatedly attempting to sabotage and breach the security fence and infiltrate Israel. They have also launched hundreds of “attack” kites carrying flaming materials over the border to spark blazes in Israeli territory.
The demonstrations came to a head on May 14 when the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem and at least 60 Palestinians were killed in clashes — almost all of them Hamas members, the terror group has acknowledged.
The violent demonstrations were meant to end on May 15, but Hamas leaders have said they want them to continue.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.