In early April Israel revealed details of how an Iran backed Palestinian Islamic terrorist group (Islamic Jihad) had been plotting to ambush one of the smaller Israeli patrol boats that operate off Gaza and capture or kill the soldiers who man these boats. The attackers would then take the bodies and prisoners back to Gaza and use them to trade for imprisoned Islamic terrorists or whatever else they could get. The plan fell apart in mid-March when Amin Saadi Muhammad Jumma (the organizer of the attack) and two of his associates were captured (along with seven other Palestinians not involved) off the coast of Gaza at night. The ten were in a fishing boat that had moved outside the designated fishing zone. Palestinian boats often cross that line and that usually means they are involved in smuggling or something worse. Fishing boats that cross the line are seized, their crews interrogated and eventually released. Legitimate fishing boats tend to avoid this sort of thing as it is bad for business. Smugglers and Islamic terrorists are another matter and the Israelis had noticed the Jumma boat operating in an odd matter recently and it was seized using ten commandos and an intimidating show of force just in case. Seven of the men on the boat had a reason to be there and had been persuaded (some cash may have been involved) to allow the other three to come along and just observe (to gather information on Israeli coastal patrols).
The Israelis found that the three strangers had criminal records, mainly for smuggling. One of these three, Jumma, was known to have joined the Gaza based Islamic Jihad in 2016. Beyond that the Israelis apparently knew little of what Jumma had been up to. Now they did. Turns out that a year after Jumma joined Islamic Jihad he had been offered $5,000 to organize and carry out the offshore ambush. Jumma was entrusted with this task because, although he had been arrested several times for smuggling at sea, it was known that many times he had managed to deliver the goods (often explosives and rocket components). Jumma appeared capable of pulling off such a bold plan. Moreover in late 2017 Islamic Jihad was desperate for a success, especially after Israel had found and destroyed some of the tunnels Islamic Jihad had built, at great expense, into Israel. Islamic Jihad, and their patron Iran, felt humiliated and were growing dispirited because of their lack of success against Israel. This was no secret and Israel was always on the lookout for the next scheme, no matter how far-fetched it might seem.
This search of vengeance went into high gear during mid-November 2017 when Islamic Jihad declared it would avenge the Israeli use of explosives (on October 30) to destroy a tunnel that had entered Israeli territory. Islamic Jihad declared this an Israeli act of aggression even though the explosives were set off in the portion of the tunnel that had entered Israel and nearly all the dead were the result of a rescue effort for some of the tunnel builders working in the tunnel when the explosives went off. Right after the explosion Gaza media identified six of the dead as belonging to Islamic Jihad and two as members of Hamas. Two of the Islamic Jihad dead were leaders and either inspecting the tunnel or supervising the work. It was later revealed that the death toll was higher (at least a dozen Islamic Jihad members and three or more from Hamas). Since this was more a case of Islamic Jihad and Hamas incompetence than anything else the standard response was to blame Israel and call for retaliation. This usually works because anyone in Gaza who points out what really happened (and is known by most in Gaza) they can more easily be accused of acting as an Israeli agent, or maybe even an Israeli spy.
Islamic Jihad should have paid closer attention to what the Israelis were up to. Earlier in November Israeli troops had built a monitoring station in the now blocked Islamic Jihad tunnel. Israel wanted to ensure that Islamic Jihad or Hamas did not resume work on this tunnel.
Most of the collapsed portion of the tunnel was on the Gaza side of the border but while examining the aftereffects of the explosion Israeli engineers found the bodies of five Palestinians belonging to Islamic Jihad. Israel kept the bodies in cold storage and offered to return them as part of a deal (as yet not agreed to by Hamas) to get back the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed in 2014 and several Israelis who illegally entered Gaza and were arrested.
Since 2016 most tunnel deaths have been in deeper and more dangerous tunnels designed to pass under the security fence and into Israel. In response to this “dig silent, dig deep” tactic Israel developed and installed new sensors. Many of these tunnels belong to Islamic Jihad. Hamas has largely ignored this tunnel building as long as it did not attract the wrong kind of attention. Islamic Jihad has long been a rival of Hamas and to protect itself always maintained close ties with Iran. While some Islamic Jihad members have called for an armed uprising against Hamas Islamic Jihad leaders did the math (or were ordered by their Iranian patrons) to back off. Islamic Jihad leaders realize that and concluded that a war with Hamas would be futile and only benefit Israel. Islamic Jihad has several thousand armed followers in Gaza and cannot just be rounded up and put out of business by Hamas, which has also been tempted to try that and also concluded that such a civil war would only benefit Israel. Moreover with Hamas once more accepting aid from Iran Hamas has been persuaded to “use” Islamic Jihad to carry out attacks against Israel that Hamas had agreed to halt after their defeat in the disastrous mid-2014 war with Israel.
The 2014 Hamas defeat had other side effects. Hamas alienated its Arab supporters (wealthy Gulf oil states) by diverting much of the “reconstruction” aid to military purposes. This was one of many disrespectful actions by Hamas. After 2011 Hamas criticism of Iran backed Syrian violence against the Sunni Syrian majority caused major friction between Iran and Hamas. After that a lot of the Iranian money sent to Gaza was shifted to Hamas rivals in Gaza like Islamic Jihad. One of the disagreements between Hamas and Iran was the blowback from Hamas allowing local Shia to seek converts among the Sunni majority. Hamas cracked down on that between 2012 and 2014. Sunni Islamic conservatives believe Shia caught trying to convert Sunnis should be punished by death. The 2014 war was caused in part by growing Islamic Jihad rocket and mortar attacks into Israel. Islamic Jihad was responsible for many of the rocket attacks from Gaza that violated ceasefire agreements negotiated between Hamas and Israel. This aggression got Islamic Jihad criticized by the UN, which usually condemned Israel for defending itself. Before the 2014 War the consensus was that Islamic Jihad was trying to goad Israel into attacking Gaza again. Such an attack would force Hamas to try to defend Gaza which would cause heavy Hamas casualties and make it easier for Islamic Jihad to oust Hamas by force later on. That is what the 50 Day War almost did, but Hamas realized that this risk existed and made peace with Israel. By 2016 Islamic Jihad was apparently, at the behest of its patron Iran, trying to trigger another Israeli attack on Gaza, something Hamas believed was premature. A successful tunnel into Israel would be used to carry out terror attacks and kidnappings. That would certainly provoke the Israelis. With enough cash Islamic Jihad could hire experienced tunnel designers and builders. The Israelis followed these efforts intently and developed effective countermeasures. This angered Iran and suddenly Islamic Jihad had lots more cash and orders to make something happen. The arrest of Jumma and his associates is another example of those efforts to obtain a victory. But the Israelis and Iranians know that if Iran can get enough of these plots underway there is a chance that one or more will succeed. Thus Islamic Jihad and Iranian cash are organizing and financing the mass protests on the Gaza border. These continue but so does the knowledge that Iranian cash is behind it, paying for the tent city built along the border and the food and other amenities offered to Gazans who will stay there and help organize the weekly mass demonstrations that are attempting to breech the border fence. Meanwhile a growing number of Gazans are killed or wounded when they get too close. Israel had identified most of the dead as Hams or Islamic Jihad members but there are enough dead civilians to make headlines. Islamic Jihad is paying $3,000 to the families of each Gazan killed during the demonstrations. Expect to see more of these deadly, Iran financed, events.