PM: We won’t allow terror groups to disrupt civilian life

IDF bolsters troops on Gaza border, as Lapid vows roads won’t stay closed for long

On 3rd day of lockdown, senior officer says sweeping road closures near Strip will continue ‘as long as necessary’ amid threat of Palestinian Islamic Jihad revenge attack

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Police block roads near the border with the Gaza Strip on August 4, 2022. (Flash90)
Police block roads near the border with the Gaza Strip on August 4, 2022. (Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces announced Thursday it was boosting forces near the Gaza Strip amid widespread road closures due to fear of an imminent revenge attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.

The Gaza Division was to be reinforced with artillery, engineering, infantry, armored and special forces, according to the IDF. There was no decision to halt all troops’ weekend furlough, but some units were being required to stay in the area.

Road closures along the border with the Gaza Strip were to remain in place over the weekend amid fears of an anti-tank guided missile or sniper attack by Islamic Jihad, after the IDF arrested its West Bank leader on Monday night.

Over the past few days, with armed drones flying over the Strip, the IDF has been working to thwart attempts by Islamic Jihad squads to launch such an attack on the border.

Israel’s Channel 12 news, citing an unnamed Palestinian source, said the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group had arrested some Islamic Jihad members, in a bid to prevent an attack.

Meanwhile, many residents of the area have been angered by the road closures even as they understand the need for them. In some cases, they have not been able to leave their towns since Tuesday morning.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke by phone with leaders of communities near the Gaza border and told them he won’t allow the current situation to continue for much longer, according to his office.

But the chief of the military’s Gaza Division told residents that the road closures would last “as long as necessary.”

“Forces of the Gaza Division have been on high alert in recent days. We have detected Islamic Jihad intentions to commit attacks against residents and soldiers, and therefore we have placed checkpoints throughout the area,” said Brig. Gen. Nimrod Aloni, in a video published by the IDF.

“The roadblocks will continue as long as necessary. The safety of the residents comes first,” Aloni said.

Earlier Thursday, Gadi Yarkoni, head of the local Eshkol Regional Council, told the Kan public broadcaster that “there is a concrete threat of attempted sniping at civilians or soldiers. This forced us to take cover. Where there is no choice, human life comes first.”

In an assessment held later in the day, Lapid said Israel “won’t accept a situation in which terror groups disrupt the residents’ daily lives,” according to his office. “We understand the difficulty experienced by the southern residents, and we share it.”

“We won’t shy away from using force to resume daily routine in the south, and we won’t stop the policy of arresting terror operatives” in the West Bank, Lapid added.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (center) meets top military and security officials at the Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2022. (Nicole Laskavi/Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, meanwhile, instructed security officials to prepare “various civilian and military measures” in order to remove the Islamic Jihad threat.

According to Gantz’s office, during a meeting with top military and security officials, he also instructed the security establishment to assist residents of towns along the border, and to continue to assess the situation so that southern Israel can return to “full normalcy.”

“The defense minister emphasized that all operational activity in all areas will continue,” his office said.

Military chief Aviv Kohavi and Gantz met separately on Thursday evening with mayors and officials of Gaza border communities, to update them on preparation for the coming days.

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi (right) speaks with Nimrod Aloni, chief of the Gaza Division, near the border with the Gaza Strip, August 4, 2022. (Israel Defense Forces)

Earlier Thursday, Kohavi toured the military’s Gaza Division and instructed them to increase the military’s readiness for an escalation, strengthen defenses and increase intelligence efforts. He also approved plans for offensive actions, in the event of an Islamic Jihad attack on the border.

Tensions around the Strip spiked following the arrest of Islamic Jihad’s West Bank leader, Bassam Saadi, in Jenin on Monday night. Saadi was taken in by forces in Jenin along with his son-in-law and aide, Ashraf al-Jada, and another member of the terror group was killed in a gun battle with troops.

The West Bank head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, Bassem Saadi, is seen shortly after his arrest by Israeli troops on August 2, 2022. (Courtesy)

In response to Saadi’s arrest, the Gaza-based terror group announced in a statement that it was declaring a state of “alertness” and raising its fighters’ “readiness.”

Early Tuesday morning, the IDF said it had ordered the closure of several main highways, train lines and lookout points along the Gaza border, following an uptick in activity by fighters tied to Islamic Jihad that posed an imminent and “direct threat of a possible attack on Israeli civilians.”

Most towns along the border have alternative routes to exit, apart from Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Nahal Oz which were entirely blockaded. Some people, due to emergencies, have been allowed in and out by the army at specific time intervals.

Israel has reportedly warned terror groups based in the enclave that it would respond forcefully to any revenge attack following Saadi’s arrest.

Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group’s military wing in the city Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, April 2, 2022. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The IDF also closed the Erez Crossing for pedestrians going in and out of Gaza. The border checkpoint is used by thousands of Palestinian workers every day.

According to the Shin Bet, Saadi, 61, has been jailed and released by Israel seven times over the years.

The Shin Bet said that in recent months, Saadi had “worked even harder to restore PIJ activities, and was behind the creation of a significant military force for the organization in [the northern West Bank] in general and in Jenin in particular.”

“His presence was a significant factor in the radicalization of the organization’s operatives in the field,” the Shin Bet added.

Jenin is widely seen as a hotbed of terror activity. Gunmen and other attackers behind several deadly terrorist attacks earlier this year came from the city and its refugee camp.

In pre-dawn raids across the West Bank, troops arrested 22 wanted Palestinians, with violent confrontations in some areas, the IDF said Thursday morning.

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