The Israeli military moved some of its troops away from the Gaza border on Thursday and increased its surveillance of the Strip as roads on the Israeli side of the border remain blocked for a third day in a row, fearing retaliatory attacks over the arrest of an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank earlier this week.
Meanwhile, there is growing criticism within the defense establishment of the restrictions imposed on Israelis living adjacent to the Gaza border and the disruption to thousands of families' lives.
Following a security assessment, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Thursday that "[Israel] will not shy away from using force to restore normal life in the south of the country, and we will not stop the policy of arresting terrorist operatives in Israel."
Some soldiers stationed near the border were moved to standby positions away from the fence over fears of attacks targeting army positions.
Special units were also deployed to the area, preparing for potential escalation — including a reinforcement on Thursday evening of artillery, infantry and combat engineers — while Israeli forces deployed drones capable of attacking Palestinian units who could attempt to launch rockets or anti-tank fire at Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a situation assessment on Thursday, attended by Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi, the head of Shin Bet security services and the CEO of the Defense Ministry, among others. Gantz instructed the defense officials to continue holding the military activities around the Gaza border until further notice.
In some towns and communities closer to the border fence, residents were asked to stay at home during the day. About 5,000 Israeli residents of Gaza border communities have been impacted by the restrictions applied on Tuesday.
Senior security officials who spoke to Haaretz believe that the defense establishment underestimated the possible implications of the arrest of senior Islamic Jihad commander Bassam al-Saadi on tensions on the Israel-Gaza border. Despite claims to the contrary from the IDF Spokesman’s Unit, officers from the Southern Command insist that they were not given advanced notice of the arrest operation and were unable to assess the situation until several hours after the incident.
Current and former defense officials have been highly critical of the military’s response to increased tensions in the south, saying that the travel restrictions placed on Israelis living close to Gaza could play into Islamic Jihad’s hands – at the expense of Hamas. This, they warn, could upset the balance of power in the West Bank, where Hamas is a moderating factor.
There are also those in the army who believe that Hamas was also surprised by the Israeli response. “Interfering with the daily lives of thousands of families in the south because of an arrest in the West Bank is something that Islamic Jihad could not even have dreamt of achieving,” one official told Haaretz.
There are also concerns that the measures taken in the south could interfere with Israel’s ongoing policy of separating between Gaza and the West Bank. “We’re creating a situation whereby Islamic Jihal is calling the shots in the West Bank,” one official said, “and that’s a big problem.”
Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Gantz also discussed the situation in Gaza on Thursday and said they will continue following developments throughout the day.
In addition to the closure of many roads, the IDF also stopped rail traffic between the cities of Be'er Sheva and Ashkelon, since the train passes dangerously close to the border.
On Monday, Israeli forces arrested Islamic Jihad commander Bassam al-Saadi along with two other people in the West Bank city of Jenin. A Palestinian man was killed in the exchange of fire that erupted during the operation.
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Al-Saadi, 62, is one of the Islamic Jihad's top officials in the West Bank. The Israeli army has arrested him several times in the past, and he spent a total of 15 years in Israeli prisons.