The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday bolstered its Gaza Division with additional troops to better secure roads along the border with the Strip that were closed amid fears of an attack on civilians or soldiers by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group.
Road restrictions near the Gaza Strip remained in place for a second day, as Israel warned terror groups based in the enclave that it would respond forcefully to any revenge attack following the recent arrest of Bassem Saadi, who leads Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.
The IDF said it was deploying 100 reservist troops and three conscript companies to assist in keeping civilians out of restricted areas under imminent threat of anti-tank guided missile fire or sniper attacks.
The IDF’s Southern Command and the air defense array were also on high alert for the possibility of rocket fire.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid meanwhile convened the high-level security cabinet to discuss the tensions, his office said.
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, Lapid received a briefing from top defense officials regarding the situation, and the members of the cabinet discussed Israel’s current assessments and actions it had been taking to defend against the imminent threat of a potential Islamic Jihad attack on the border.
“The Prime Minister continues to receive regular updates on the situation in the [area surrounding] Gaza and holds briefings several times a day,” the PMO said.
Tensions around the Strip spiked throughout Tuesday following the arrest of Saadi in Jenin on Monday night.
The arrest, and videos that showed him being dragged away by soldiers, stoked Palestinian anger and rumors that he had been slain.
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.
In response to Saadi’s arrest, the Gaza-based group announced in a statement that it was declaring a state of “alertness” and raising its fighters’ “readiness.”
The IDF later leaked images to reporters seeming to show Saadi in good condition, with the aim of calming tensions.
With fears of an imminent attack rampant, Channel 12 reported that Israeli officials passed a message via Egypt to leaders of Islamic Jihad and to Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave, indicating that Jerusalem was not interested in a fresh round of fighting, but would respond harshly to any attack or breach of its sovereignty.
The reports were not attributed to sources. Military officials often pass messages through Israeli media while insisting on total anonymity.
On 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 “a direct threat of a possible attack on Israeli civilians.”
Later in the day, the IDF issued an update to the road closures, saying Route 232 between Mefalsim and Sa’ad and access roads for farmers nearby were closed, but the road between Sa’ad and Kerem Shalom had been reopened for traffic.
Route 242 and 2410 were also closed, as were Route 4 from Zikim Junction toward the Erez Crossing, and Route 34 between Yad Mordechai Junction and Nir Am Junction.
All towns along the border have alternative routes to exit, apart from Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which were entirely blockaded due to the restrictions.
Danny Rahamim, a resident of Nahal Oz, told the Kan public broadcaster the army was allowing people in and out at specific time intervals.
“The situation is not easy, especially in the education systems, but despite the great difficulty, we understand that the security forces are protecting our lives,” Rahamim said.
The Eshkol Regional Council on Wednesday morning told residents living in towns in the Hevel Shalom area, near the borders of Israel, Gaza, and Egypt, that they should exit via the surrounding fields, not through the main road.
Due to the restrictions, Sapir College in Sderot was holding its classes online.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz vowed to let residents of towns near the Gaza Strip resume their daily routines.
“We will act with determination to restore normalcy to the [area surrounding] Gaza, and if it is not possible [for them] to return to normalcy, there will be no normalcy inside Gaza either,” Gantz said during a faction meeting of his Blue and White-New Hope party. “If normalcy returns, all residents of the area will benefit.”
Gantz added that he wished to give strength to residents of the south, “who empower us and give us the ability to conduct a correct and responsible security policy.”
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.
Despite the high tensions, the Goldin family and dozens of supporters began a march from their home in the town of Kfar Saba in central Israel to the Gaza border, marking eight years since the body of their son was seized by Hamas.
Hadar Goldin, the son of Leah and Simcha Goldin, was killed while fighting in the 2014 Gaza war, along with Oron Shaul. The soldiers’ bodies have been held by Hamas ever since.
Israel has worked to secure the return of the soldiers’ remains and two living men also being held captive — Avera Mangistu and Hisham al-Sayed — via a prisoner exchange deal with the terror group. Egyptian intelligence, which maintains close ties to both Israel and Hamas, often serves as the key intermediary, but talks have seemingly hit a dead-end.
Last month, in another apparent bid to jumpstart negotiations, Hamas released a video of al-Sayed connected to oxygen, claiming he was ill.
Al-Sayed, a Bedouin Israeli, crossed into the Gaza Strip voluntarily in 2015. His family says he suffers from mental illness.