Roads around Gaza to remain closed for 3rd day amid fears of Islamic Jihad attack
Military bolsters forces surrounding Strip, with terror group said determined to avenge arrest of its West Bank leader; Israel said refusing PIJ demands made via Egyptian mediator
Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.
Following a new assessment held by the Israel Defense Forces, road closures along the border with the Gaza Strip will remain in place on Thursday, for the third day in a row, local authorities said Wednesday night.
The closures came amid fears of an imminent attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, after the IDF arrested its West Bank leader on Monday night.
In a message to citizens, the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council said plans by Islamic Jihad to launch anti-tank guided missiles or commit a sniper attack on the border have so far been prevented “by virtue of keeping and complying with the instructions.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the IDF said it had bolstered its Gaza Division with 100 reservist troops and three conscript companies to assist in keeping civilians out of restricted areas under imminent threat by Islamic Jihad.
The IDF’s Southern Command and the air defense array were also on high alert for the possibility of rocket fire.
Israel has reportedly warned terror groups based in the enclave that it would respond forcefully to any revenge attack following the recent arrest of Bassem Saadi, who leads Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid convened the high-level security cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the tensions and receive an update on Israel’s current assessments and actions it had been taking to defend against the imminent threat of a potential Islamic Jihad attack on the border.
Tensions around the Strip spiked following the arrest of Saadi in Jenin on Monday night. Saadi was taken in by forces in Jenin along with his son-in-law and aide, Ashraf al-Jada, and another member of the terror group was killed in a gun battle with troops.
In response to Saadi’s arrest, the Gaza-based terror group announced in a statement that it was declaring a state of “alertness” and raising its fighters’ “readiness.”
The IDF later leaked images to reporters seeming to show Saadi in good condition, with the aim of calming tensions.
The Palestinian Al-Quds newspaper, citing an unnamed Palestinian source, said Wednesday that Egyptian efforts to de-escalate the tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad were still ongoing, but Israel had so far denied the terror group’s requests.
The paper said Islamic Jihad demanded that the family of Saadi be allowed to visit him to check on his condition. Additionally, Islamic Jihad demanded Israel end military operations in the West Bank, specifically in the Jenin area where Saadi was detained, Al-Quds said.
Lastly, the terror group was asking for the release of Khalil Awawda, a Palestinian detainee currently on hunger strike, the report said.
The source told the paper that Israel was denying the requests, particularly regarding its operations in the West Bank.
The report added that the source indicated Islamic Jihad seemed interested in de-escalating but had emphasized “its right to respond to the crimes of the occupation,” including the arrest of Saadi.
Channel 12 news said Israel had passed more threatening messages to Islamic Jihad, via Egyptian mediators, that it would begin ramping up actions against Gaza if the terror group would not back down from its plans to avenge the arrest of its West Bank leader.
The network said Israel may issue economic sanctions on the Strip, which could include closing off Gaza’s fishing zone.
Early Tuesday morning, the IDF said it had ordered the closure of several main highways, train lines and lookout points along the Gaza border, following an uptick in activity by fighters tied to Islamic Jihad that posed an imminent and “a direct threat of a possible attack on Israeli civilians.”
Most towns along the border have alternative routes to exit, apart from Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Nahal Oz which were entirely blockaded. Some people, due to emergencies, have been allowed in and out by the army at specific time intervals.
Due to the restrictions, Sapir College in Sderot was holding its classes online.
The IDF also closed the Erez Crossing for pedestrians going in and out of Gaza. The border checkpoint is used by thousands of Palestinian workers every day.
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.