A day after Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad reached a ceasefire following three days of armed conflict in and around the Gaza Strip, the terror group on Monday warned it may resume fighting unless Israel agrees to release two of its members.
According to a Channel 12 report Monday, the PIJ distributed pamphlets to residents of the Palestinian enclave, saying its fighters were willing to renew the conflict unless Israel releases Bassam Al-Saadi, the head of the organization’s activities in the West Bank, and Khalil Awawdeh, who is currently on a hunger strike in protest of his administrative detention by Israel.
Israel has refused the demands for their release, seeing a wider opening to negotiate with Hamas, as well as PIJ, in the aftermath of Operation Breaking Dawn to resume stalled prisoner exchange talks.
“We are absolutely aware that there is an opportunity in the aftermath that we don’t want to miss,” an Israel official told reporters in a briefing earlier, highlighting the ongoing attempts to arrange for the return of Israeli civilian captives and bodies of IDF soldiers held by Hamas, among other imperatives.
The Hamas terror group holds two living Israelis — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin. Hamas has held their remains as a bargaining chip since the 2014 war.
Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks over the years in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal in 2011 to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas’s clutches saw 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners released, many of them convicted terrorists.
Al-Saadi’s arrest in Jenin last week is believed to have led to the latest round of violence in Gaza.
In their pamphlets on Monday, PIJ instructed Gaza residents to take down mourning tents and prepare for a potential reescalation, according to the Channel 12 report, after the deadly three days of fighting.
The head of the PIJ, who is currently in Iran, said the ceasefire was contingent upon Israel releasing the two members.
“From the very beginning, we insisted that the two leaders be freed — the brother on hunger strike, and Bassam Al-Saadi,” said PIJ leader Ziad Nakhaleh in an interview that aired on the Islamic Jihad’s Palestine Today television network.
Nakhaleh said Israel had agreed to release Awawdeh and Al-Saadi “with explicit Egyptian guarantees.”
“The enemy tried to proceed slowly in agreeing to this demand, but in the end, it has conceded to these demands, with explicit Egyptian guarantees — that our mujahid brother Khalil Awawdeh will set out for the hospital tomorrow, and then he will go home. As for Bassam Al-Saadi, we received an explicit promise, in writing, that Egypt pledges to follow up on his release in the shortest possible time frame,” Nakhaleh claimed.
Nakhaleh said his organization told the Egyptians that Israel has one week to release the prisoners or it will call off the ceasefire.
Israel has no intentions to release the prisoners early, The Times of Israel learned earlier Monday.
Nakhaleh added that if Israel “does not abide by these demands that it agreed to, then we would treat this as if there was no [ceasefire] at all, the [ceasefire] agreement is void… We will not hesitate for a moment to resume the fighting,” he said.
The Egyptian-mediated deal, which went into effect at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, ended a three-day conflict that began Friday with Israeli strikes that killed a top PIJ commander. Palestinian terrorists subsequently fired around 1,100 rockets toward Israeli territory, while the Israel Defense Forces hit Islamic Jihad targets and killed another of the Iran-backed organization’s top leaders in Gaza.
Lazar Berman contributed to this report.