Israel Defense Forces chief Aviv Kohavi toured the military’s Gaza Division Thursday morning, as Israel remained on high alert for a potential attack along the border with the Strip.
Road closures along the border with the Gaza Strip remained in place for the third day in a row amid fears of an imminent attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, after the IDF arrested its West Bank leader on Monday night.
According to the IDF, Kohavi instructed to increase the military’s readiness for an escalation, strengthen defenses, and increase intelligence efforts. He also approved plans for offensive actions, in the event of an Islamic Jihad attack on the border.
Kohavi was presented with an intelligence assessment of the situation, as well as how tanks and artillery units were preparing in the area.
According to Palestinian media reports, Israeli armed drones and jets were flying over the Strip, as the military prepared to thwart attempts by Islamic Jihad squads to launch anti-tank guided missiles or carry out a sniper attack on the border.
Many residents of the area are angered by the road closures even as they understand the need for them. In some cases they have not been able to leave their towns since Tuesday morning.
The Ynet news site’s correspondent for the south of the country dubbed the situation the “quietest escalation” in the past 20 years.
“There is a concrete threat of attempted sniping at civilians or soldiers. This forced us to take cover. Where there is no choice, human life comes first,” Gadi Yarkoni, head of the local Eshkol Regional Council, told the Kan public broadcaster.
“Sometimes the trick is to see how to control the situation without escalating, and sometimes my residents, unfortunately, suffer from it,” Yarkoni said.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz meanwhile held a “security consultation” on Thursday morning, Lapid’s office said.
“The two discussed the security situation in the south and the steps necessary for continued security in the area. They agreed to hold another consultation later today,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.
Tensions around the Strip spiked following the arrest of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s West Bank leader Bassam 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.”
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.
On Wednesday, the IDF bolstered the Gaza Division with 100 reservist troops and three conscript companies to assist in keeping civilians out of restricted areas under imminent threat.
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 Saadi’s arrest.
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 ongoing, but Israel had so far denied the terror group’s requests.
The paper said Islamic Jihad demanded that Saadi’s family 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.
Finally, the terror group was asking for the release of Khalil Awawda, a Palestinian detainee on hunger strike, the report said. Army Radio said Thursday that an Israeli security official confirmed the last request.
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 Saadi’s arrest.
Channel 12 news said Wednesday night that Israel had passed more threatening messages to Islamic Jihad, via Egyptian mediators, saying it would begin ramping up actions against Gaza if the terror group did not back down from its plans to avenge the arrest.
The IDF has 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 terrorist activity. Gunmen and other attackers behind several deadly terrorist attacks earlier this year came from the city and its refugee camp.
In pre-dawn raids across the West Bank, troops arrested 22 wanted Palestinians, with violent confrontations in some areas, the IDF said Thursday morning.