The IDF has been taking steps recently to strengthen the security of Pitchat Nitzana, a block of communities located in the western Negev, in response to evolving terrorist threats from the Sinai Peninsula and the growing frequency of violent smuggling incidents.
An incident that occurred last October, in which two IDF soldiers from the Caracal Battalion were wounded when militants from Sinai fired rifles and an anti-tank missile at an IDF jeep, only emphasized the necessity of setting up a tighter security ring around the area. The main threat comes from Sinai, namely from the terror group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, an al-Qaeda-linked Salafist group, which has recently announced that it had joined the Islamic State terror group.
Up until Operation Protective Edge, the defense of the area was entrusted to the Gaza Division, but during the operation, the responsibility was handed over to the 80th "Edom" Division, explained Lt. Col. Gilad Avralinzi, an engineering officer with the 80th Division, adding that "part of the idea is to strengthen the physical elements of protection on the ground."
The IDF has begun the construction of engineering obstacles in the area, including a physical barrier and a tunnel to prevent the infiltration of vehicles. The Israeli military has also constructed new outposts, in an attempt to strengthen the protection around fence-adjacent communities.
Over the past month, Special Engineering Vehicles (TZAMA) units held training sessions, during which reservists from the 80th Division conducted engineering work along the border, using 13 TZAMA engineering vehicles, as part of a project whose estimated cost was NIS 6 million.
"The first thing we did was strengthen the area of Kadesh Barnea, because there were major risks there, Lt. Col. Avralinzi said. And indeed, new outposts used by security forces as observation points and protection zones can be viewed near the communities in the area.
"We have set up an array of positions that allow vehicles to enter the position and remain protected, keep watch, and open fire," Lt. Col. Avralinzi added. "We have built an array of obstacles in the eastern part of the Philadelphi Route, designed to restrict movement from territorial depths to the area of the fence, in order to maintain a solely military presence along the fence."
"During Operation Protective Edge, we witnessed rocket fire launched at Kadesh Barnea and Ketziot. Violent incidents occurred here. This is hostile terrorist activity with a criminal cover, which begins with smuggling and ends in shooting," Avralinzi says.
One of the prominent examples of the lack of protection measures in the area was the incident in which the Caracal company commander (a female officer) came under fire. "It happened during an exchange of fire," Avralinzi explains. "She had no place to hide; she laid down on the ground, and didn't have a position open. Had she handled it behind a shielded outpost, she would have been able to manage the activity more secure manner."
"If in the past, the smugglers had entered the communities of the Ramat Negev Regional Council after crossing the fence, in an almost unimpeded manner – the situation is now different," Avralinzi says.
"When you let a smuggler pass through, you invite hostile terrorist activity. The terrorist will use the same guide who led the smuggler. He knows the same route. There will be nine smuggling incidents and the tenth could be a hostile terrorist attack."
Despite the established obstacles, the military does not believe the smuggling will stop altogether. "Smuggling incidents will happen, but not in Kadesh Barnea, Ezuz or Nitzana," Avralinzi says.