Islamic Jihad returned to the headlines Tuesday when Bassam al-Saadi, the head of the organization in the Jenin area, was arrested in an operation by the Border Police’s undercover unit; there was a heavy exchange of fire.
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An aide to Saadi was also arrested in the raid, and a 17-year-old was killed. Sources in the West Bank said he was a member of an armed unit.
The incident prompted extraordinary precautionary measures in Israeli communities near Gaza amid fears of a possible retaliation on Israel launched from the Strip, which is controlled by Hamas.
A Border Police officer told Israeli radio stations that Saadi was captured after he resisted arrest. Videos posted on social media by Palestinians showed Border Police troops dragging Saadi, who is 62 and has bounced in and out of Israeli prisons for at least two decades. For that reason, his arrest may bring to mind the scene in “Casablanca” in which Capt. Renault orders his men to “round up the usual suspects” after Rick shoots Maj. Strasser.
The Shin Bet security service and the army have been troubled recently by a rise in the armed activity of jihadists in the Jenin area, which has been accompanied by closer coordination with militants from other organizations including Fatah’s Tanzim. In a statement, the Shin Bet said Saadi had been in Israeli custody at least seven times. He served a long prison sentence during the second intifada.
According to the Shin Bet, Saadi made great efforts recently “to rehabilitate Islamic Jihad activities and build a significant military force for the organization in Samaria” – the northern West Bank. “[He] played a crucial role in radicalizing the organization’s operatives.” The Shin Bet added that “a pistol, explosives and large amounts of currency” were recovered from Saadi and his aide, also an ex-convict.
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In the past, Islamic Jihad militants in the Gaza Strip have responded to unusual deaths or arrests in the northern West Bank by firing rockets or shooting rifles into Israel. The security measures being taken suggest that Israeli intelligence anticipated a similar reaction to the latest incident – possibly because of the images of Saadi being dragged on the ground.
Since early Tuesday morning civilian traffic has been blocked on all roads near the Gaza border fence, as has entry to observation points near the border. Also, rail traffic was suspended in the Sderot area, where one section of track is vulnerable to anti-tank missiles fired from the Strip.
Some of the locations whose access was blocked were targeted by anti-tank missiles and sniper fire during previous escalations. At the same time, Egyptian intelligence officials spoke with leaders of factions in the Strip in an effort to head off renewed violence. If Hamas promises Cairo to keep the peace, a return to routine in Israel’s border communities is likely before the weekend.