IDF forces foiled a terror plot early Saturday morning when they killed two gunmen who infiltrated Israel from northern Gaza. The terrorists had planned to attack troops and residential communities near the border and were found to be wearing IDF uniforms and carrying an explosive device.
An IDF soldier was lightly injured during the incident and was sent to the Barzilay Hospital in Ashkelon for treatment. Military bases and local authorities in the region were told to remain on high alert.
Colonel Moni Katz, commander of the Northern Gaza Brigade, said he believed the two gunmen killed in the area were not working alone.
"Whoever was helping them returned to Gaza immediately after the gunmen crossed the fence… they were carrying all sorts of weapons: guns, explosives, bulletproof vests, rifle magazines and more," he added.
Later Saturday, IDF troops detained two Palestinians in the northern Gaza Strip on suspicion of aiding the two infiltrators. The suspects were apprehended by forces from the Golani Brigade and were handed over to security officials for questioning.
Militants frequently attack the Israeli border, but Saturday's infiltration was one of the few times they have managed to slip by the heavily fortified fence around Gaza.
Maj. Tal Lev-Ram, an Israeli army spokesman, said there was "an intention to carry out a large attack in Israeli territory." He said the militants were armed "head to toe" with grenades and automatic weapons, and were headed toward communities in southern Israel when they were stopped.
'A martyrdom operation'
According to Palestinian sources in Gaza, the terrorists are Khadar Oukel (20), an operative in the Salah al-Din Brigades – the Popular Resistance Committees' military wing, and Muhammad Saker (22), an operative in the National Resistance Brigades - the armed wing of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP).
A spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees said that the two had been killed in a "martyrdom operation against the Zionist entity." He said that the operation was intended to enter the Israeli community of Netiv Ha'asara, in the western Negev.
PRC, along with DFLP and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades - Fatah's military wing - issued a joint statement claiming responsibility for the attack. According to the statement, three gunmen participated in the attack: Two were killed after a "long battle," and the fate of the third was unknown.
Lev-Ram said the claim of a third militant entering Israel was wrong, and if there were other attackers, they probably turned around and stayed in Gaza. Still, the army and police set up checkpoints and conducted searches as precautionary measures. By early afternoon, the checkpoints had been removed, the army said.
Scaled tower under fog
A preliminary investigation into the incident revealed that the tterrorists crossed into Israel by scaling a tower separating Gaza from Netiv Ha'asara, using the poor visibility due to the heavy morning fog to infiltrate undetected.
They then approached the Erez border terminal, which houses the Israeli District Coordination Office, a unit that cooperates with the Palestinian Authority regarding Israel's activities in Gaza. The unit deals heavily with humanitarian cooperation with the PA and foreign aid organizations.
The terrorists shot at the soldier on guard at the border terminal and threw grenades. Uninjured, the soldier returned fire, but was unable to hit the terrorists.
Golani soldiers Saturday morning (Photo: Shula Margolit)
"I ducked down on the ground at first," the soldier told Ynet. "They fired only six shots. Then I heard a huge explosion. It was a grenade... I was able to fire off a few shots in the direction of the sound of the shooting... The fog made it difficult to see anything."
Following the attack on the guard, troops on the base immediately alerted all forces in the region. "This caused the terrorists to run north," an army source said. The two men moved towards Netiv Ha'asara and the nearby Kibbutz Erez.
"At this point, a readiness squad from the 12th battalion of the Golani infantry division surrounded them, engaged them and killed them," another military source told Ynet. One of the soldiers was lightly injured in the clashes. The militants were about 700 meters (yards) inside Israeli territory when they were shot.
Residents don't feel safe
A military source said the incident indicates the high threat level along the border with Gaza, but added that it also illustrates Israel's adequate reaction to such a threat.
"The fence and tower are one set of obstacles in our defensive approach. The soldiers in the area complete the defensive picture. This incident proves that this is the correct combination between physical obstacles and forces in the field. Through these, an attack was prevented long before the threat closed in on civilians in the area," he explained.
But despite his words, area residents do not feel safe. Netiv Ha'asara resident Carmela Michaeli recounted, "only two weeks ago, they discovered an underground tunnel that almost reached the community. How can we feel secure when… any time, a terrorist could show up in the living room?"
The words of the town's acting security director, Ziv Wulf, heighten this impression. He reported that the first alert of the infiltration was received by town authorities only at 7:00 am, local time, after the terrorists had already been shot.
"The community is bordered by a 9 meter (27 foot) tower on its Western side. The terrorists were able to scale it and were very close to homes in the town," he said.
All of the communities in the area had been told in recent weeks to heighten their level of readiness, due to the possibility of just such an infiltration and potential attack. Many police forces were deployed since the morning along roads in the Gaza vicinity communities. Road blocks have been set up in the region.
AP, Reuters and Tovah Dadon contributed to this report