In a joint statement, Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Israel “will not allow terrorist organizations to set the agenda in towns near the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of Israel.”
Earlier in the day Gantz had warned that Israel would take action if the terror group did not halt its preparations for an attack. PIJ had been threatening since Tuesday to attack in response to the arrest of its West Bank leader, causing days of road closures and community lockdowns in areas near the border under immediate threat.
The military said six sites were hit by fighter jets and armed drones as it launched Operation Breaking Dawn. One of the strikes killed one of the PIJ’s senior commanders, Tayseer Jabari. Jabari replaced Baha Abu al-Ata as the group’s commander in northern Gaza after the latter’s assassination by Israel in 2019. The PIJ confirmed Jabari’s death.
The IDF also targeted the head of the anti-tank guided missile array and several squads preparing attacks. The army estimated that between 10-20 terror operatives had been killed in the opening wave of airstrikes.
The Hamas-run health ministry said at least eight people had been killed, including a 5-year-old girl, and 40 others wounded.
Israeli officials indicated that the operation was targeting the PIJ specifically, hoping to keep Hamas largely out of the conflict as it did during a flare-up after Abu al-Ata’s killing.
Speaking to Channel 12 news, Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked said the government decided “that we are not prepared to be held hostage by a Gaza terror group.”
She added: “We don’t know how this [conflict] will play out… but this could take time… This could be a lengthy round [of conflict] and a hard one.”
The military said it had deployed the Iron Dome air defense system near Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Beersheba, as it anticipated retaliation from Islamic Jihad in the form of rocket attacks. The military said a “special situation” had been declared on the homefront, up to 80 kilometers from Gaza — an area extending as far north as Tel Aviv. A “special situation” is a legal term used in times of emergency, granting authorities greater jurisdiction over the civilian population in order to streamline efforts to safeguard the population.
Residents in areas close to the border were instructed to remain close to bomb shelters, and in the Lachish and central Negev areas gatherings were restricted. Public bomb shelters were opened in the city of Beersheba.
An unnamed security source told the Ynet new site that “efforts to get Islamic Jihad to climb down” from its intentions to carry out an attack “have been exhausted.” He said “this is why Israel has initiated an assault against the group” and added Israel will strive to keep Hamas outside the conflict.
Tensions around the Gaza Strip spiked following the arrest of Bassam Saadi in Jenin on Monday night. Since then, the Israel Defense Forces has bolstered forces and shuttered routes along the border due to fear of an imminent revenge anti-tank guided missile or sniper attack by the Islamic Jihad. The precautions have largely placed residents of the border communities under lockdown.
“To our enemies in general and to the leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad I say explicitly, ‘Your time is limited. The threat will be removed one way or another,’” Gantz said during a press conference at the military’s Southern Command in Beersheba.
Gantz said that the terror group was holding the citizens of Gaza “hostage,” as due to their threats, the Erez Crossing — used by thousands of Palestinians a day — remains closed.
“Whoever robs the livelihood of 14,000 workers, causes agricultural goods to rot in the crossings, and causes a shortage of electricity and food, first of all, harms the residents of Gaza, and will bear the responsibility,” he said.
Gantz said Israel’s defense establishment was preparing for “any action that will be required, on all fronts from the south, the center and the north. We will continue operational activity in all sectors, as long as required.”
In a statement to the world, “especially” countries involved in Gaza, Gantz said Israel was “acting with restraint” but would act with “power” in order to return civilian life in southern Israel to “full normalcy.”
“We are not striving for a fight, but we will not hesitate if we have to,” Gantz said.
Gantz’s remarks came after a two-hour-long assessment held with Prime Minister Yair Lapid and military officials.
Gantz then headed to meet with mayors and leaders of communities of towns along the border with Gaza, as anger has mounted over the closures. In some cases, residents have not been able to leave their towns since Tuesday morning.
Gantz said residents of the Gaza border communities “have shown throughout the years a civil resilience that deserves complete appreciation.”
“Our mission is to ensure that the tension ends and routine returns. I say to the residents of the surrounding area, we are with you and we will do everything necessary to protect you, responsibly, decisively and according to considerations of using force that will lead to the required result,” Gantz said at the press conference.
Also Friday, the Walla news site reported that a UN representative had visited Saadi’s family in Jenin, as part of efforts to avoid an eruption of violence.
On Thursday, the military’s Gaza Division was reinforced with artillery, engineering, infantry, armored and special forces.
Over the past few days, with armed drones flying over the Strip, the IDF has been working to thwart attempts by Islamic Jihad squads to launch such an attack on the border.
Military chief Aviv Kohavi also visited southern Israel on Friday. On Thursday, Kohavi instructed the IDF 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.
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 terror activity. Gunmen and other attackers behind several deadly terrorist attacks earlier this year came from the city and its refugee camp.
In a pre-dawn raid in the West Bank town of Burqin, near Jenin, troops arrested a wanted Palestinian, the IDF said Friday morning.