As the second day of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad came to a tumultuous close Wednesday night, the group’s Damascus-based Secretary General Ziad Nakhala indicated for the first time that the terror group was open to a ceasefire.
The latest fighting began after Israel killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior commander in the terror group’s military wing, in a pre-dawn Tuesday airstrike. Israeli officials say Abu Ata was preparing multiple terror attacks against Israelis.
In response, the group launched at least 360 rockets at Israeli cities, according to a Wednesday night count by Israeli officials. The IDF has responded to the fire with waves of airstrikes targeting the terror group’s installations and rocket-launching squads. Gaza health officials say 26 Gazans have died in the strikes, at least 13 of them fighters. Israel says the great majority are PIJ fighters.
In a Wednesday night interview with the pro-Hezbollah Lebanese television station Al-Mayadeen — PIJ, like Hezbollah, are allied with Iran — Nakhala said the terror group had laid out ceasefire conditions during talks in Egypt, which he said Israel would have to accept to achieve a ceasefire.
“We gave specific conditions for a ceasefire. If Israel accepts them, we will accept a ceasefire,” he said. “If Israel does not accept them, we are going to continue to fight for an indefinite period of time.”
Those conditions “are simple and humble. First, We are talking about halting assassinations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank,” he said, before apparent technical trouble on Al-Mayadeen’s part made the rest of the sentence inaudible.
He continued: “Second, stopping fire on innocent civilians at the March of Return. Third, Israel abiding by the understandings that were concluded in Cairo which are related to the measures [inaudible] in the Gaza Strip.”
Nakhala was apparently interviewed from Cairo, where he landed Wednesday evening to take part in Egyptian-led talks to end the fighting.
An Israeli diplomatic official appeared to confirm Wednesday night that Israel was nearing a ceasefire agreement with the terror group, saying PIJ was beginning to understand its rocket fire had failed.
“Quiet will be answered with quiet, and what happens on the ground will be the deciding factor,” the official said.
The official said the latest Wednesday-night rocket fire by the terror group appeared to be a last-ditch attempt to claim the past two days of fighting as a success.
“The Islamic Jihad wants a ceasefire and therefore it is trying to create a false impression of having achieved something. The Jihad’s demands prove that Israel’s operations were a success. The IDF killed 20 terrorists and significantly harmed the Jihad’s capabilities,” the official said.
Quoting Palestinian sources, Channel 13 on Wednesday night reported that Egypt was investing considerable efforts to secure a ceasefire in the coming hours. The network said that despite previously rejecting the prospect of a ceasefire, Islamic Jihad was now ready to discuss it.
A source in Hamas, the terror group that rules Gaza, told Israel’s Kan public broadcaster there had been no breakthrough in ceasefire talks, but predicted the current round of fighting would not last much longer.
Islamic Jihad has not asked Hamas to join the fighting, according to the source, who rejected Palestinian criticism of Hamas for not taking part in the flareup.
“We are facing a decisive situation in the coming hours that will lead to important diplomatic developments,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab al-Breim was quoted saying by Kan.
Islamic Jihad’s military wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, claimed its rocket attacks had inflicted extensive damage on the Israeli home front.
“If the enemy reveals [what they have done], it will turn Netanyahu into a laughingstock on the Zionist street,” spokesman Abu Hamza tweeted.
Amid the reports of stepped-up ceasefire efforts, rocket barrages were fired from Gaza at the southern Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon on Wednesday night, causing no injuries or damage.
Top Israeli officials have said they are not seeking continued fighting, but were prepared to do take necessary steps to stop the rocket fire.
Earlier, a Hamas official suggested it would join Islamic Jihad in firing rockets at Israel if the Israeli military continued to strike Gaza.
Israel on Wednesday threatened to carry out additional targeted killings against Gaza terror leaders, but has refrained from explicitly threatening Hamas. This position marked a departure from previous rounds of fighting, when the Jewish state maintained it held Hamas responsible for all violence emanating from the coastal territory.
On Wednesday evening, the IDF Home Front Command eased some of the restrictions that had been in place on areas farther from the Gaza Strip. Under the new instructions, people living in the central Negev and Lachish regions will be permitted to return to work, provided there is a bomb shelter close to the building. However, schools will remain closed in those areas for the third day in a row.
Studies will resume in the Shfela region tomorrow, and the IDF has also removed all restrictions on the number of people permitted to gather in closed areas in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area and in the Yarkon and Shfela regions. Outdoor gatherings in those areas will remain limited to 300 people.
All restrictions will remain in place for the regions closest to the Gaza Strip: Schools will remain shut tomorrow; non-essential businesses will be closed; and all gatherings must be kept to fewer than 100 people.
Adam Rasgon contributed to this report