After withdrawing the bulk of its ground troops from the Gaza Strip in a “new phase” of its counter-terror operation, Israel declared a unilateral humanitarian ceasefire for seven hours starting 10 a.m. Monday, Aug. 4 to facilitate the entry of humanitarian aid and for displaced Palestinians to return to their homes. Eastern Rafah was not included. The IDF would respond to any attacks during that time.
But on the quiet, the IDF was on the process of conducting a major strategic operation, carving out a buffer strip or cordon sanitaire just inside the Gaza border, designed to be controlled from outside by special forces and armored units on round-the-clock alert, to bar hostile infiltrations. They are equipped with a battery of firing posts, sensors and drones.
This sterile strip runs 65km from Beit Hanoun in the north to Khan Younis in the south, roughly following one of Gaza’s only motorways, Highway 6 (see map).
All the territory east of this line up to the Israeli border has been cleared of buildings and vegetation to a depth of 1 km in the north and center of Gaza and 2-3 km deep in such areas as Khan Younis.
These dimensions were calculated to reduce Palestinian rocket fire against Israel’s southern communities, and deter Hamas from planning new tunnels.
The Israel troops pulled out of Gaza are redeploying in a new formation as a “breakthrough force” – able to cross back into Gaza for rapid response operations if necessary. It is made up of large armored units, special operations contingents and air force, and is highly mechanized rather than fielding soldiers on foot. This force is capable of raids that penetrate deeper into the territory than ventured by the IDF in the first 27 days of Operation Defensive Edge.
For the new phase of its operation, the Netanyahu government has determined to have no truck with the Hamas terrorists and, irrespective of its demands and terms for a ceasefire, to act on its own initiative in accordance with Israel’s own security needs. This policy has impacted on the Gaza truce negotiations which go into their second day in Cairo Monday. Their participants cannot avoid appreciating that Israel has followed its own operationall plans for redeployment outside the Gaza Strip.
At the same time, military experts warn that the new military formation opens up the prospect of a prolonged war of attrition. Hamas and Islamic Jihad are keeping up their rocket and mortar fire on Israel – up to 140 Sunday alone. After a quiet night, the first rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome over Ashdod and Ashkelon at 6:30 a.m. Monday.
The threat of “synchronized” terror attacks through still undiscovered tunnels has been sharply reduced by the massive IDF effort to disable the network – but there is no guarantee that all of the tunnels have been discovered, or that new ones are not being burrowed under the border.
Saturday night, three dusty motorcycles were pulled out of the 3-km long Rafah tunnel through which suicide bombers surprised and killed three Givati officers Thursday 90 minutes into an international ceasefire. They were intended for use by six terrorists for a raid or raids far from the immediate environs of the Gaza border.
So Hamas still holds the advantage of nasty surprise.