Israeli Officials Didn't Expect Gaza War, Even With Islamic Jihad Assassination, West Bank Arrest

Senior officials say they didn't think the arrest of an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank would lead to escalation in Gaza, and the attorney general says defense officials assessed the killing of another in Gaza would not spark an all-out war

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Defense Minister Gantz and IDF officers, during Operation Breaking Dawn.
Defense Minister Gantz and IDF officers, during Operation Breaking Dawn.Credit: Ariel Hermony / Defense Ministry

Israel did not anticipate that the arrest of an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank last week would lead to an escalation in Gaza, senior officials said on Monday, a day after a cease-fire agreement ended three days of fighting with the Palestinian militant group.

Defense officials also believed that the killing of another Islamic Jihad leader in the Gaza Strip on Friday, which triggered the latest round of violence, would not lead to an all-out war, according to the attorney general.

Days of war: Understanding this weekend's Israel-Gaza flare-up

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Because of this assessment, the Israeli decision to target Tayseer al-Jabari, the head of the Islamic Jihad's military wing in northern Gaza, did not require a green light from the cabinet, Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara said.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz of the left-wing Meretz party complained that Prime Minister Yair Lapid didn't consult with the cabinet. According to Israeli law, a prime minister must consult with their cabinet before engaging in a military campaign only if it would likely lead to war.

During the Saturday meeting, Lapid told Horowitz that he had consulted with Baharav-Miara, who said he could go ahead with ordering the operation without informing the cabinet.

Senior officials also said on Monday that Israel doesn't intend to release two high-profile prisoners mentioned in the Egyptian-mediated cease-fire deal. Egyptian sources told Haaretz that Cairo promised to discuss with Israel the release of Bassam al-Saadi, the Islamic Jihad leader arrested in Jenin last week, and Khalil Awawdeh, who is being held without charges and has been on a hunger strike since early July.

Israel was "open to dialogue on the demands surrounding the conditions of their detention," the Israeli officials said. Awawdeh will likely be released soon, according to the Egyptian sources, who said they don't expect Israel to agree to Saadi's release.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Meira, earlier this year.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The Israeli officials said they hope that the cease-fire agreement could lead to progress in negotiations with Hamas, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007, for the release of two Israeli civilians and the return of the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.

Abera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who both crossed into Gaza, are held by Hamas, as well as the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul, who were killed in fighting along the Gaza border in 2014.

The hostages were now "high on the list of priorities," an official said, noting that Israel is exhausting every possibility to secure their return.

According to the officials, before launching the offensive in Gaza, Israel knew that Hamas would not join the fighting – yet it criticized the armed group for not taking action to prevent it.

"We're glad that Hamas didn't join the cycle and drag us into a broader campaign, but they also didn't fulfill their responsibility to control the Islamic Jihad and prevent deterioration. This is our expectation from those who claim to control the Strip and its population."

"The understanding that Hamas is not interested in joining the fighting was a very important element in the decision-making," a source said.

The officials said that Egypt, Qatar and the United States were involved in the mediation efforts, and that Israel kept them in the loop to show that the operation was limited to Islamic Jihad targets. This proved itself, they said, noting that Jordan was instrumental in keeping the West Bank and Jerusalem calm.

"Talks of a possible ceasefire started on Saturday. We came to the conclusion that the Islamic Jihad wouldn't be able to accomplish what it wanted [throughout the operation]," the officials said.

On Saturday night, the option of a humanitarian and temporary ceasefire was on the table. But the government insisted on a complete ceasefire. On Sunday, the Islamic Jihad launched a rocket towards Jerusalem, which the official said convinced the government of the "necessity of a full ceasefire."

They noted that the fact that Islamic Jihad chief Ziad al-Nakhala was in Tehran made it difficult for him to order a ceasefire. "Egyptian mediation was very intense … In the end, the result we obtained was a good one."

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