Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala reportedly arrived in Egypt Wednesday evening amid apparent efforts to bring an end to fighting between Israel and terror groups in the Gaza Strip.
According to Sky News Arabic, the Damascus-based Nakhala touched down in Cairo and was set to meet with Egyptian officials for talks on calming the situation in Gaza.
Early Tuesday, an Israeli strike in Gaza killed Baha Abu al-Ata, a senior Islamic Jihad commander. Since then, Palestinian terrorists have fired over 360 rockets at Israel, with the Israeli military carrying out extensive retaliatory strips in the coastal enclave.
Quoting Palestinian sources, Channel 13 news reported 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 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.
English and Hebrew news outlets have widely reported that while Islamic Jihad has fired hundreds of rockets at Israel since Abu al-Ata was killed, Hamas has elected not to participate in the fighting.
But at least one Hamas official strongly insinuated the terrorist group has taken part in the ongoing confrontation. Hamas, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, is the most powerful terror group in the Strip, with the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad being the second largest organization.
Egyptian officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said on Tuesday that Cairo was attempting to lower tensions between Israel and the terror groups. The officials added the Egyptian General Intelligence Service stepped up communications and “opened channels” with the United States and the European Union.
Nickolay Mladenov, United Nations special coordinator to the Middle East peace process, expressed concern on Wednesday about the continued tensions between Israel and the terror groups.
“I am very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following the targeted killing of one of the group’s leaders inside Gaza yesterday,” he said in a statement emailed to reporters, stating his rejection of “the indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centers.”
“The continuing escalation is very dangerous. It is yet another attempt to undermine the efforts to improve the dire socio-economic conditions in Gaza and prevent another devastating conflict. The UN is working to urgently de-escalate the situation,” he added.
In the past year, both the Egyptian General Intelligence Services and Mladenov have been involved in brokering unofficial ceasefires between Israel and the terror groups. Egyptian intelligence officials and Mladenov have frequently visited Gaza to discuss the truce agreements.
Israel on Wednesday threatened to carry out additional targeted killings against Gaza terror rulers, 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 closes 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 and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.