While most direct danger comes from Gaza, former intelligence chief says Israel should not lose sight of another real danger: Iran, Hezbollah and Syria
With tensions rising in the south of the country and fears that the Islamic Jihad terror group may seek revenge for the destruction of a tunnel two weeks ago, the Israeli military understands that striking the right balance between preventing terrorist groups to prepare for a possible next war and to maintain relative calm in the region is easier said than done.
If neither side appears to be preparing for a fight immediately, an IDF miscalculation runs the risk of triggering a bloody blow-for-blow conflict that could lead to all-out war.
Over the past two weeks, the military has struggled to avert such an escalation as the Palestinian terror group Islamic Jihad vowed revenge for the Israeli military's demolition of its attack tunnel that ran through Israeli territory from Gaza.
On October 30, the army had effectively blown up the tunnel, which originated in the Gazan town of Khan Younis and crossed into Israeli territory, near Kibbutz Kissufim.
Last measure of the army? The deployment of the Iron Dome missile defense system in central Israel - including at least one battery in the greater Tel Aviv area - amid fears the terror group could retaliate with a salvo of rockets.
In addition to preparing for the attack, the Israeli military has also tried to avert one, repeatedly warning of the consequences should the Gaza-based Islamic Jihad and the ruling terror group retaliate in the Gaza Strip, Hamas.
A total of 12 terrorists were killed in the tunnel explosion, two of them from Hamas and the rest from Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including two high-ranking commanders. The remains of five of the Islamic Jihad terrorists, who worked in the tunnel on the Israeli side, were returned by the IDF a few days later.
But according to the army, this large number was not intentional. The purpose of the operation, for the Tsahal, was the destruction of the tunnel, not the murder of the 12 terrorists. In comments after the explosion, IDF officials also noted that many of the terrorists did not die in the explosion, but in failed attempts to rescue them.
But the army has stressed that it does not regret the deaths of the terrorists, after being criticized by politicians who interpreted the officers' comments as a kind of apology.
With this large number of dead, the army considers that the group "will have a hard time holding back".
Coincidentally, Tuesday also marks five years since the elimination of then-Hamas military wing commander Ahmed Jabari, killed by an IDF airstrike, which sparked the week-long military campaign in Gaza, Operation Pillar of Defense. Terrorist groups have been known to carry out attacks to mark important anniversaries.
On Monday, Amos Yadlin, the former head of military intelligence, praised the army's attitude of preparing to counter threats from Gaza, but warned that it should not be forgotten that "the northern front is the Israel's main concern – Assad, Hezbollah and Iran seek to challenge the Tsahal”.
Israel recently 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 growing boldness after his successes in the war civil of the country.
Senior Israeli military and government officials are currently engaged in intense discussion with US and Russian counterparts over a ceasefire agreement in southern Syria, particularly over the distance issue. Israeli borders where Iran-backed militias will be allowed to operate.
While Iran's entrenchment along the Golan borders poses a far greater strategic threat to Israel's long-term security, the most direct concerns seem to be with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which could attack at any time.
IDF tells Islamic Jihad: go ahead
When the IDF discovered two Hamas attack tunnels crossing into Israeli territory last year, there were also fears of a potential retaliatory response, but those fears dissipated fairly quickly. Yet in these cases there were no dead terrorists, unlike last month's demolition.
General Yoav Mordechai, in charge of Israel's military liaison with the Palestinians, posted a video message in Arabic which was addressed to the leaders of the Islamic Jihad in Damascus, telling them that the IDF was aware of the activities of the terrorist group and that they are "playing with fire".
“We are aware of the activities the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is planning against Israel,” Mordechai said.
“Let it be clear: any attack by Islamic Jihad will lead to a strong and determined Israeli response, not only against Jihad, but also against Hamas,” the general warned.
The group responded a day later, declaring Israeli threats against its leaders a "declaration of war", and vowing revenge.
“We reaffirm our right to respond to any form of aggression including our right to respond to crimes of aggression on the resistance tunnels,” the Islamic Jihad said.
In the eyes of the military, this strike on the tunnel was entirely justified, legally and morally, since it entered Israeli territory and threatened Israeli civilians. The army therefore thinks that if it can hurt, Palestinian Islamic Jihad should just count its dead and move on.
“They violated Israeli sovereignty. They were carrying out a hostile act against Israel. We were able to thwart that threat, end of story,” army spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said in a lengthy interview on the Israel Project podcast on Monday.
“And if they try to attack us again, they will face our determination and our power,” added Conricus.
Israeli forces also arrested a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank, in what appears to be a non-verbal message of deterrence directed at the terror group.
The Shin Bet Security Service has confirmed that Tariq Qaadan, a high-ranking officer in the West Jordan branch of the Gaza-based terror group, was detained by the IDF in Arrabeh, southwest of Jenin in northern West Bank.
A Shin bet official said Qaadan was arrested "because he is a member of a terrorist group".
According to Yadlin, who now heads the respected Institute for National Security Studies think tank, the messages published by Mordechai and the military spokesperson's office are important tools to avoid escalation and also to show a significant shift in the way the military operates since the 2014 war in Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
"The messages and warnings that Israel is sending to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in recent days are no accident, but they do suggest that there is specific intelligence that Islamic Jihad is planning to retaliate against the destruction of his tunnel of terror in Israel,” Yadlin wrote on Twitter.
"It seems that Israel has learned the lessons of Operation Protective Edge, and this time it will focus on hitting the heads of the organizations (and in particular the heads of their military and terrorist branches), as well as the operational infrastructure" , he specified.
Source: Threats north and south – IDF remains calm while preparing for the worst