Israel announced the start of a military operation in the Gaza Strip on Friday afternoon with multiple strikes on targets of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, with leaders saying the actions were necessary after the group refused to back down from its intentions to carry out attacks against the country.
The military said six sites were hit by fighter jets and armed drones as it launched Operation Breaking Dawn. One of the strikes killed one of the PIJ’s senior commanders.
The IDF also targeted the head of the anti-tank guided missile array and several squads preparing attacks. The army estimated that between 10-20 terror operatives had been killed in the opening wave of airstrikes.
The Hamas-run health ministry said at least 10 people had been killed, including a 5-year-old girl, and 55 others wounded.
A second wave of strikes on PIJ targets followed some time later.
In a joint statement, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel “will not allow terrorist organizations to set the agenda in towns near the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of Israel.”
Earlier in the day Gantz had warned that Israel would take action if the terror group did not halt its preparations for an attack. PIJ had been threatening since Tuesday to attack in response to the arrest of its West Bank leader, causing days of road closures and community lockdowns in areas near the border under immediate threat.
One of the first Israeli strikes killed Tayseer Jabari. Jabari replaced Baha Abu al-Ata as the group’s commander in northern Gaza after the latter’s assassination by Israel in 2019. The PIJ confirmed Jabari’s death.
Israeli officials indicated that the operation was targeting the PIJ specifically, hoping to keep Hamas largely out of the conflict as it did during a flare-up after Abu al-Ata’s killing.
A senior military official said Islamic Jihad had been preparing a major terror attack against Israeli civilians, with Jabari and many of his fighters planning to attack civilians near the border, the official said.
The military expected major rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, he added.
The military said it had deployed the Iron Dome air defense system near Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba, as it anticipated retaliation from Islamic Jihad in the form of rocket attacks. The military said a “special situation” had been declared on the homefront, up to 80 kilometers from Gaza — an area extending as far north as Tel Aviv. A “special situation” is a legal term used in times of emergency, granting authorities greater jurisdiction over the civilian population in order to streamline efforts to safeguard the population.
Residents in areas close to the border were instructed to remain close to bomb shelters, and in the Lachish and central Negev areas gatherings were restricted. Public bomb shelters were opened in the city of Beersheba.
The IDF meanwhile began to call up reservists to bolster its Southern Command, Home Front Command, air defense array and combat troops in the event of further escalation. Gantz approved calling up as many as 25,000 reservist troops, his office said.
Lapid, Gantz, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and top security officials held security consultations in the evening to decide on Israel’s next steps.
IDF spokesman Ron Kochav told Channel 12 that the operation was “a targeted campaign against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad,” confirming reports that the army was trying not to drag Hamas into the ongoing conflict and is hoping to keep the campaign limited in scope.
Detailing the context in which the IDF had resorted to the airstrikes and the deadly targeting of PIJ’s Tayseer Jabari, Kochav said: “Jabari was responsible for the concrete threat in the last three-four days to fire anti-tank missiles and mow down Israeli civilians or soldiers in the Gaza border area.”
Once the IDF’s intelligence was complete and the preparations had been made over the past three days, “we carried out a devastating ambush, that thwarted Jabari and the members of the anti-tank cells, along with others.”
Extraordinary intelligence information enabled a direct strike on the apartment where Jabari was, said Kochav.
In subsequent strikes, “we attacked the manned positions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including rocket launch positions, some of which were recently used.”
Speaking to Channel 12 news, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said the government decided “that we are not prepared to be held hostage by a Gaza terror group.”
She added: “We don’t know how this [conflict] will play out… but this could take time… This could be a lengthy round [of conflict] and a hard one.”
An unnamed security source told the Ynet new site that “efforts to get Islamic Jihad to climb down” from its intentions to carry out an attack “were exhausted.” He said “this is why Israel has initiated an assault against the group.”
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Tensions around the Gaza Strip spiked following the arrest of Bassam Saadi in Jenin on Monday night. Since then, the Israel Defense Forces has bolstered forces and shuttered routes along the border due to fear of an imminent revenge anti-tank guided missile or sniper attack by the Islamic Jihad. The precautions have largely placed residents of the border communities under lockdown.
“To our enemies in general and to the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad I say explicitly, ‘Your time is limited. The threat will be removed one way or another,'” Gantz said during a press conference at the military’s Southern Command in Beersheba.
Gantz said that the terror group was holding the citizens of Gaza “hostage,” as due to their threats, the Erez Crossing — used by thousands of Palestinians a day — remains closed.
“Whoever robs the livelihood of 14,000 workers, causes agricultural goods to rot in the crossings, and causes a shortage of electricity and food, first of all, harms the residents of Gaza, and will bear the responsibility,” he said.
Gantz said Israel’s defense establishment was preparing for “any action that will be required, on all fronts from the south, the center and the north. We will continue operational activity in all sectors, as long as required.”
In a statement to the world, “especially” countries involved in Gaza, Gantz said Israel was “acting with restraint” but would act with “power” in order to return civilian life in southern Israel to “full normalcy.”
“We are not striving for a fight, but we will not hesitate if we have to,” Gantz said.
Gantz then headed to meet with mayors and leaders of communities of towns along the border with Gaza, as anger mounted over the closures. In some cases, residents have not been able to leave their towns since Tuesday morning.
Also Friday, the Walla news site reported that a UN representative had visited Saadi’s family in Jenin, as part of efforts to avoid an eruption of violence.
On Thursday, the military’s Gaza Division was reinforced with artillery, engineering, infantry, armored and special forces.
Over the past few days, with armed drones flying over the Strip, the IDF worked to thwart attempts by Islamic Jihad squads to launch such an attack on the border.
Military chief Aviv Kohavi also visited southern Israel on Friday. On Thursday, Kohavi instructed the IDF 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.
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.