Two days after a ceasefire ended a three-day conflict between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Defense Minister Benny Gantz put PIJ leaders on notice on Tuesday, warning that they should all be “worried.”
Speaking to public broadcaster Kan in his first interview since an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire brought Operation Breaking Dawn to a close on Sunday night, Gantz said he hoped the truce holds for a long time but that, if required, “Israel will use its [military] might as much as is necessary.”
“All the heads of the terrorist organizations should be worried,” Gantz said, in reference to Gaza’s Hamas rulers as well as PIJ. “Ziad Nakhaleh heads the group [PIJ]; he doesn’t have guarantees [that his life be spared] anywhere he goes,” warned the defense minister.
Nakhaleh is Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s general secretary and has been in Iran since last week for meetings with the terror group’s main backers.
Nakhaleh was in Iran throughout Israel’s military operation over the weekend, which included targeted killings of the group’s leaders. The group’s commander in northern Gaza, Tayseer Jabari, was killed in an Israeli raid last Friday in the opening strike of the IDF’s Operation Breaking Dawn.
Israeli leaders said the operation was launched over concrete threats posed by the group to Israeli civilians at the border, following the arrest in Jenin earlier in the week of the terror group’s West Bank leader, Bassem Saadi.
On Saturday night, Israel killed Khaled Mansour, PIJ’s commander in southern Gaza, in an airstrike in the Palestinian city of Rafah.
Terror group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has fought Israel in four major operations since Israel left the coastal territory in 2005, stayed on the sidelines of the fighting.
Gantz said in his remarks that, although Hamas stayed out of the recent round of violence, “in all four confrontations in Gaza, Israel had the upper hand and that is not going to change.”
The defense minister said that the re-development of Gaza — following several rounds of fighting that have caused significant destruction — was contingent upon Hamas’s release of Israeli hostages and the remains of soldiers killed in action.
“This is the obstacle between the development of the Strip and to staying in its current state,” said Gantz.
Hamas holds two living Israelis — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. The Islamist group has held their remains as a bargaining chip since the 2014 war. Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks over the years in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal in 2011 to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas’s clutches saw 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners released, many of them convicted terrorists
As part of the ceasefire, which went into effect Sunday night, PIJ has demanded the release of two of its members — a demand Israel has refused, seeing a wider opening to negotiate with Hamas on a prisoner exchange as well.
In a separate interview Tuesday, however, Gantz did not rule out the potential release of the two PIJ prisoners.
“Saadi was justifiably arrested and I’m not familiar with a promise to release terrorists,” Gantz told Channel 12 news, referring to Islamic Jihad’s arrested West Bank leader. “I don’t want to simply promise they won’t be released. We don’t hold people in prison for nothing.”
He added that Israel was in touch with Egypt — which brokered the ceasefire — while issuing a warning to Hamas.
“I want to clarify — Hamas is not Israel’s partner, it is in our sights… We readied for the possibility that Hamas could join the battle,” Gantz said.
“We are absolutely aware that there is an opportunity in the aftermath that we don’t want to miss,” an Israeli official told reporters in a briefing on Monday, highlighting the ongoing attempts to arrange for the return of the Israeli civilian captives and the bodies of the IDF soldiers held by Hamas, among other imperatives.
PIJ, meanwhile, has threatened to resume fighting if Israel fails to release Saadi, the head of the organization’s activities in the West Bank, and Khalil Awawdeh, who is currently on a hunger strike in protest of his administrative detention by Israel.
Earlier Tuesday, the Israeli military said it believes it inflicted “significant” damage on PIJ, destroying infrastructure including a tunnel into Israel described as a “flagship” project, and eliminating its top brass.
Israel and PIJ on Sunday halted three days of intense fighting that saw hundreds of rockets lobbed at Israeli towns and intense airstrikes across the Gaza Strip. Dozens of Palestinians were killed in the round of violence, according to Hamas authorities in Gaza, though Israel blamed errant fire by Palestinian fighters for many of those deaths.
In a briefing wrapping up the 66-hour Operation Breaking Dawn, the Israel Defense Forces said it “significantly damaged Palestinian Islamic Jihad and its leadership.”
The army launched the first airstrikes after indications of an imminent PIJ anti-tank guided missile attack against Israeli civilians or soldiers on the border. Those strikes killed Jabari.
According to new details revealed by the IDF on Tuesday, the IDF used small glide bombs in order to hit Jabari’s sixth-floor apartment in the 14-story tower in Gaza City.
The munitions entered the seventh-floor wall at an angle, penetrated the ceiling of the sixth, and only then exploded, in order to minimize collateral damage, senior officers said.
In another major airstrike on the second night of the operation, Mansour was killed.
The IDF delayed the strike on Mansour several times, as his apartment was close to a playground. The military published a video of it aborting the strike, in a bid to show its efforts to avoid harming civilians, even when confronted with the opportunity to hit a top-tier target.
The IDF struck 170 targets, using fighter jets, armed drones, combat helicopters, and artillery, according to the briefing.
The targets included 17 observation posts (six of which were manned by PIJ operatives), 45 rocket and mortar launching sites, eight military camps, eight weapon caches, six weapon production facilities, three targets related to the PIJ’s naval force, and an “attack tunnel.”
In total over the three days, 1,175 rockets and mortars were launched from the Gaza Strip at Israel. The Iron Dome anti-rocket system intercepted over 380 projectiles fired toward populated areas, at an unprecedented 97 percent success rate, the IDF said.
The IDF said the most significant target of the operation was an attack tunnel it hit on early Sunday. The military said the tunnel, built several meters underground from the southern Gaza city of Rafah, was to be used to “enter and attack Israel by surprise.” The IDF said the tunnel did not cross into Israeli territory, as Israel has a high-tech belowground wall guarding its frontier with Gaza from attack tunnels, which once threatened southern towns.
The tunnel was Mansour’s “flagship” project, according to a senior IDF officer.
Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip said 45 people were killed in the fighting, including 16 children, but it did not say how many of the total killed were affiliated with terror groups. At least 15 deaths were claimed as members by the PIJ, Hamas and another, smaller, terror group.