[Editor’s Note: At this hour, the IDF is launching airstrikes on targets in the Gaza Strip in a new campaign dubbed “Operation Breaking Dawn” amid continued concern over potential retaliatory attacks after Israel’s arrest of a top leader of the Iranian-proxy Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) terror group .]
By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner
“The security and quality-of-life of the residents of the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip are our top priority,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said this morning during a security assessment on the situation in southern Israel and the possible scenarios that may unfold.
“We are working to return the residents of southern Israel to their daily routine as quickly as possible. This is our responsibility,” he added.
Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Israel Security Agency (ISA) Director Ronen Bar, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, National Security Council Director Prof. Eyal Hulata, Prime Minister’s Military Secretary Maj. Gen. Avi Gil and other senior officials participated in the discussion.
Additional security consultations will be held as necessary over the weekend.
The surge in tensions with Gaza follows PIJ vows to avenge Israel’s capture of its West Bank operations leader Bassam al-Sa’adi and his deputy, as well as the killing of one of its operatives earlier this week during a counter-terror raid the flashpoint city of Jenin, in which another PIJ member was slain. Israeli officials have so far offered no comment on the circumstances of al-Saadi’s arrest, but local media reported on Thursday that a military court has extended his detention by eight days.
PIJ Spokesman Daoud Shihab declared his group has “the right to use all means to press and retaliate on this aggression… therefore, all the options are on the table and we are ready to go to the toughest option if needed.”
Road closures in the Gaza periphery communities and in the western Negev remained in place today, and the suspension of train service between Ashkelon and Sderot has been extended, following concrete intelligence that PIJ cells seek an opportune moment to harm Israelis via anti-tank and sniper fire. Limitations on the freedom of movement has severely obstructed harvesting by Israeli farmers in the area expected to lead to massive losses.
“We detect the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s intentions to carry out terrorist attacks,” Gaza Division Commander Nimrod Aloni said in a video released by the IDF. The shutdown “will continue as long as necessary,” he added, stressing that “resident safety takes precedence above all.”
Officials at Israel’s defense establishment acknowledged to TV7 earlier today that “either the Islamic Jihad will capitulate from its proclaimed intentions to strike at Israeli civilians and troops, or Israel may be forced to remind its enemies of its qualitative edge.”
After inspection of the southern front this morning, Israeli Defense Minister Gantz also emphasized Jerusalem’s determination to protect the civilians of the Jewish State and that the threat posed from the Hamas-controlled territory will be ended with whatever means necessary.
“To our enemies in general and to the heads of Hamas and Islamic Jihad I say explicitly – your time is limited. The threat will be removed one way or another. The situation in which irresponsible terrorists, some of whom are not in the area at all, took the residents of Gaza hostage will return and harm them. Whoever robs the livelihood of 14,000 workers, causes agricultural goods to rot in the crossings, and causes a shortage of electricity and food – first of all harms the residents of Gaza and he will bear the responsibility,” stressed Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Gantz.
IDF Spokesperson for Arab Media Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee posted a statement on his official Twitter account in Arabic asserting that the PIJ “doesn’t take into consideration the welfare of the residents of Gaza, and it threatens to bring the Gaza Strip to the edge once again.”
The closure of the Erez Crossing into Gaza has prevented Palestinian workers from crossing into Israel. It also seals entry of fuel trucks that supply Gaza’s sole power plant, officials say would shut down within 48 hours if the borders are not reopened. Residents in the Islamist Hamas-controlled enclave already cope with electrical shortages providing just 10 hours daily and will leave the territory with Israel’s daily supply of 120 megawatts if the local facility ceases operations.
Israel has maintained a land, air and sea blockade of the Strip to prevent the Hamas terror group from acquiring contraband weapons and other materials seized the Islamists seized control of Gaza from their Fatah rival in a brutal Palestinian internecine war in 2007.
Jerusalem is currently exercising restraint to allow for Cairo-led mediation efforts to exhaust a diplomatic track aimed at de-escalation between Israel and the PIJ. But while Israel is determined to give diplomacy a chance to de-escalate the tensions, Defense Minister Gantz stressed that no-one should regard Israel’s restraint as a weakness – and that the defense establishment would not hesitate to engage the enemy in battle.
“The IDF, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and the security forces are all preparing for any action that may be required, on every front from the south, the center and the north. We will continue operational activity in all sectors, as requested. I would also like to say to the countries of the world, especially to those involved in what is happening in Gaza – the State of Israel practices the restraint that stems from its power, and will act from internal and external power, in order to return life in the sector to full normality. We are not eager to engage in battle – but we also don’t hesitate to engage (in battle) if we have to. The State of Israel and the IDF will continue to act with a full understanding of the mission we carry on our shoulders – to protect the communities and residents of the south. To protect all Israeli citizens,” Defense Minister Gantz stressed earlier today.
PIJ Spokesman Shehab said his group is “in contact with Egyptian officials but so far there is no satisfactory result, therefore, the full alert status remains.”
Hamas Spokesman Abdel-Latif Al-Qanoua also said his organization has also been in talks with the Cairo brokers, while insisting that the Islamist rulers “will not accept the continued closure of crossings and the policy of collective punishment.”
So far, Israel has rejected Islamic Jihad’s demands – and has clarified to Egypt – that it will continue counter-terror activities in the West Bank districts of Judea and Samaria as part of the military Operation Waves Breaker.
In a tweet following a security briefing yesterday, Prime Minister Lapid underscored that Israel “will act offensively against any organization that threatens the security of our citizens.” Following the discussion, he also said, “We understand the difficulty for the residents of the south. Our main focus right now is protecting their lives and safeguarding Israel’s security.” He went on to say that “the security arrangements that we decided upon are necessary as temporary preparation measures. We will not accept a long-term situation in which terrorist organizations disrupt citizens’ lives. We will not be deterred from using force in order to restore normal life in the south, and we will not halt our policy of arresting terrorists in Judea and Samaria.”
Joint counterterrorism operations overnight conducted by the IDF, ISA and Border Police Special Operations forces at multiple locations throughout the West Bank districts of Judea and Samaria. captured numerous terror suspects linked to the PIJ and confiscation of weapons and “other” equipment used for terror-related attacks.
Palestinian gunmen opened fire and engaged in violent riots during the raids, although no casualties were reported among Israeli forces.