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IDF: Islamic Jihad snipers fire at troops on Gaza border; none injured

Military says it fired back ‘to remove the threat’; incident comes as Israel and Palestinian terror groups in the Strip negotiate ceasefire

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: A picture taken from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip shows Israeli soldiers inspecting the area around their observation post next to the border fence with the coastal enclave on August 1, 2019, following a firefight with a Palestinian gunman. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Illustrative: A picture taken from Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip shows Israeli soldiers inspecting the area around their observation post next to the border fence with the coastal enclave on August 1, 2019, following a firefight with a Palestinian gunman. (Said Khatib/AFP)

A sniper team from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group opened fire on a group of Israeli soldiers and police officers along the southern Gaza border on Wednesday, causing no injuries, the Israel Defense Forces said.

The Israeli troops — both IDF soldiers and officers from the police’s counter-terrorism unit — responded with artillery fire “to remove the threat,” the military said.

There were no immediate reports of Palestinian casualties, though the IDF said it “identified a hit.”

The military said the PIJ team opened fire from near the city of Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

The presence of counter-terrorism police officers along the Gaza security fence appeared to indicate that Israeli security forces had advanced knowledge of an impending attack by the PIJ, as this unit — known in Hebrew by its acronym Yamam — is not usually stationed along the border.

The Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad is considered the second most powerful terror group in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas, the enclave’s de facto ruler. In November, Israel fought a punishing two-day war with the PIJ, sparked by the IDF killing one of the terror group’s senior commanders — Baha Abu al-Ata — whom Israel said was responsible for many rocket launches at southern and central Israel, as well as several infiltration attempts.

The attack on Wednesday came hours after Israel announced it planned to end a series of “sanctions” on the Gaza Strip, following a period of relative calm.

On February 5, the military restricted the permitted fishing zone down to 10 nautical miles and canceled some 500 travel permits after weeks of regular rocket fire and the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices into Israel from Gaza. Then on Tuesday night, the military liaison to the Palestinians said Israel would extend Gaza’s fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles and increase the number of travel permits from the Strip by 2,000.

The warhead of a rocket-propelled grenade, which appears to have been flown into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, is found outside the community of Alumim on February 18, 2020. (Courtesy)

“So long as the quiet is preserved, Israel will tomorrow (Wednesday) extend the fishing zone back to 15 nautical miles and add 2,000 permits for Gaza resident vendors,” Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj. Gen. Kamil Abu Rukun said in a statement.

Though there have been no rocket attacks on southern Israel since Saturday night, airborne bombs have continued to cross the border daily, including the warhead of a rocket-propelled grenade that was found in the Gaza-adjacent community of Alumim earlier on Tuesday.

Earlier on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was planning a “big surprise” for Hamas if the terrorist group failed to rein in violence aimed at southern Israel, amid reports that Israel was contemplating the assassination of two senior Hamas leaders.

In a pre-election interview with Army Radio, Netanyahu said: “Hamas and the other terrorist organizations such as Islamic Jihad, whose commander [Baha Abu al-Ata] we eliminated a few weeks ago, have to understand that either there is complete quiet and they rein in the rogue factions — shoot them in the knees, that’s the way — or we will have no choice but to launch our operational programs. I can’t share what they are, but I can say it will be a big surprise.”

The prime minister said he would not subject any decision on Gaza to “political timetables,” with the March 2 election less than two weeks away, adding that he would “choose the right time to take action.”

Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, center, chants slogans with protesters during his visit to the Gaza Strip’s border with Israel, April 20, 2018. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

The London-based pan-Arab website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported Tuesday that an Egyptian intelligence delegation that visited the Gaza Strip did so after receiving information that Israel was planning to assassinate the two prominent Hamas figures.

The website said it had been told by sources that Cairo had persuaded Israel to suspend a decision to assassinate Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Marwan Issa, the leader of its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

The southern area has seen weeks of tension and unrest along the Gaza border, with dozens of explosive and incendiary devices being launched each day in some cases, as well as rocket and mortar fire from the Strip.

No Israelis have been injured physically by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives, though some have raised concerns of the potential psychological damage caused by this extended period of tension and violence, which began some two years ago with a series of violent protests along the Gaza border.

In response to the attacks, the Israel Defense Forces has conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which have not injured Palestinians.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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