Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar said Tuesday that security forces recently foiled a Palestinian Islamic Jihad cell based in the West Bank that had started to manufacture rockets to launch at Israel under the direction of one of the senior leaders in the group eliminated by Israel in a series of airstrikes in Gaza.
The revelation came during a primetime press conference held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Bar to update Israelis on the decision to launch Operation Shield and Arrow early Tuesday morning, and warn terror groups in Gaza against attempts to turn the latest escalation into a multi-front battle.
Khalil Bahtini, who commanded Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza; Jihad Ghanem, a top official in the group’s military council; and Tareq Izz ed-Din, who directed Islamic Jihad terror activities in the West Bank from a base in Gaza were killed in the IDF airstrikes along with 10 civilians who were either with them or in adjacent apartments.
Bar said that Izz ed-Din directed 20 terror cells targeting Israel, with one of them located in the Jenin refugee camp in the northern West Bank.
“In recent weeks, [the cell] had begun producing rockets and launchers” to fire at Israel, Bar said, calling it “a dangerous precedent.”
The Shin Bet chief said members of the cell were arrested by Israel and had since confessed. “We don’t intend to let Afula… become a target for [rocket] fire,” he said, referring to the northern Israeli city.
Bar went on to reveal an additional cell in Ramallah that was planning to launch attack drones into Israel but was similarly foiled by security forces.
Islamic Jihad is “fully funded by Iran,” he asserted. “The hands are Palestinian, but the voice is Iran’s.”
“We won’t let Iran work via proxies,” and Israel will counter all its efforts, he added.
Netanyahu, Gallant and Bar revealed that Ghanem was one of the orchestrators of an attack 19 years ago in which five members of a single family were murdered. Tali Hatuel, who was eight months pregnant at the time, was shot dead along with her four daughters, aged 2 to 11.
Bar said that the killing of Ghanem offered “closure” — a central imperative in the security services that is “crucial to Israeli deterrence and provides some comfort to the families of the victims.”
“The family remembers, and the Shin Bet does not forget,” he warned. “We’ll get to them all, wherever they are.”
In remarks that opened the Tuesday night press conference, Netanyahu touted Israel’s overnight operation in Gaza, saying the three senior Islamic Jihad members it killed were responsible for rocket fire from the Strip and directing attacks in the West Bank.
Referring to the deaths of non-combatants, Netanyahu insisted Israel does everything to avoid harming civilians, while Palestinian terrorists target them.
He also warned Islamic Jihad and other Gaza terror groups that “any escalation on your part will be met with a crushing response on our part.”
Netanyahu said Israel was in the midst of what could be a protracted campaign and that when it was decided upon a week ago, after Islamic Jihad fired over 100 projectiles at Israel, he told the IDF to prepare for any scenario, including the possibility of conflict “on more than one front.”
Addressing Israel’s enemies directly, Netanyahu said that “any escalation on your part will be met with a crushing response on our part.”
“And I want to say one more thing: We are all standing in this battle together — as brothers,” the premier added, in an apparent attempt to dispel fears of disunity among Israelis amid the ongoing dispute over his government’s highly controversial plan to overhaul the judiciary.
Speaking after Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant clarified that “the campaign isn’t over.”
“The security establishment is prepared for any scenario,” he added.
He confirmed that Operation Shield and Arrow was decided upon in the wake of last Tuesday’s flareup, when Islamic Jihad “fired indiscriminately at Israeli citizens” in what he called a direct challenge to Israel’s right to its land.
Gallant said “all the goals” of the operation had been achieved — “the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leadership in Gaza was slain.”
But he added that Israel was likely to sustain “rocket fire in areas near and far, with considerable power.”
Along with its operations in Gaza, the IDF is capable of “replicating and activating” operations “in other areas and against other threats,” he warned.
At the same press conference, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said that if it had been possible to eliminate the three Islamic Jihad commanders without non-combatant casualties, the IDF would have done so. “Terrorism hides in populated areas,” and seeks to harm Israel’s civilians, he said, while Israel “makes every effort” to avoid harming Gaza’s non-combatants.
Islamic Jihad had yet to successfully respond as of Tuesday night, likely a result of Israel catching the group off-guard, though the coming hours were likely to see intense volleys at Israeli cities.
Israeli military analysts believe the terror group is seeking to begin any retaliation with some kind of dramatic attack, to offset the blow of the loss of its trio of Gaza leaders in the early Tuesday IDF raids, in which the three were targeted within the space of 20 seconds.
Restrictions on movement in areas within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza issued by the IDF’s Home Front Command remained in place as of 6 p.m. on Wednesday.
Residents of areas near Gaza were ordered earlier Tuesday to stay in or near bomb shelters. Local authorities were instructed to open public shelters, and access to some roads running near the enclave was blocked over fears of anti-tank missile fire or sniper attacks.
School was canceled for a second straight day on Wednesday in areas near Gaza as far away as the Lachish Regional Council and Beersheba. Outdoor gatherings would also continue to be banned along with the cancellation of train service between Ashkelon and Netivot. Crossings between Israel and Gaza would remain shuttered Wednesday as well.
Previous strikes on Islamic Jihad leaders have been answered with barrages of rockets at Israeli civilians and intense battles with Israeli troops, some lasting several days.
Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.