Islamic Jihad Determined to Fire Anti-tank Missile From Gaza, Israeli Officials Say

Intel suggests Gaza militant group intent on avenging arrest of its West Bank leader and that the chances of another round of fighting are growing

Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich
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Israel tanks on the Gaza border on August 4.
Israel tanks on the Gaza border on August 4.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Yaniv Kubovich
Yaniv Kubovich

Israeli defense officials say that the Islamic Jihad militant group in the Gaza Strip is intent on avenging the arrest of one of its leaders in the West Bank earlier this week by firing an anti-tank missile or directing sniper fire at Israeli targets.

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Israel arrested Islamic Jihad commander Bassam al-Saadi along with two other people in the West Bank city of Jenin on Monday. A Palestinian man was killed in the exchange of fire that erupted during the operation and, fearing retaliation, Israel imposed a partial lockdown in communities close to Gaza.

The officials cited intelligence information indicating the presence of militants in Gaza looking for an opportunity to hit a civilian or military target, adding that the current uptick in tension will not end until a strike of this kind, which could further escalate tensions, is attempted - suggesting that the risk of a new military operation is increasing.

As a result, weekend leave was canceled for combat soldiers and service members in essential positions and reinforcements were ordered for the Gaza Division of the Israel Defense Forces. Nonetheless, the army 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.

After speaking with Egyptian mediators, defense officials said they were given the impression that while Islamic Jihad remains intent to hit an Israeli, Hamas - unlike in the past - is making no effort to restrain the organization.

Despite the arrest Wednesday of members of one of its Gaza cells by Hamas, which rules the Strip, Israel still believe that Islamic Jihad has decided in principle to respond to al-Saadi's arrest with sniper or anti-tank fire, rather than rocket fire at Israeli border-area communities.

A Hamas observation tower near the Israeli community of Netiv Ha'asera, close to the border of the Gaza Strip.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The IDF continues to prepare for the possibility of a large-scale operation against Islamic Jihad, similar to Operation Black Belt in November 2019, when which Israel struck Islamic Jihad targets and removed Hamas from the equation.

Defense officials now believe, however, that whatever deterrence was achieved during that operation - discouraging Islamic Jihad from any conflict with Israel without Hamas by its side - has worn off. According to the same sources, Israel intends to restore deterrence against the organization and to cause significant damage to its infrastructure while also targeting its militants.

'Israel won't shy away'

Earlier Thursday, Prime Minister Yair Lapid said following a security assessment 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."

Defense Minister Benny Gantz also 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 officials to continue conducting 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.

Hamas the moderating factor

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 Jihad is calling the shots in the West Bank,” one official said, “and that’s a big problem.”

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