Road restrictions near the Gaza Strip remained in place Wednesday for a second day, as Israel warned terror groups based in the enclave that it would respond forcefully to any revenge attack following the arrest of a terror leader.
At the same time, reports indicated that efforts were underway to calm tensions following the overnight capture of Bassem Saadi, who leads Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the West Bank.
Roads around Gaza were shut Tuesday morning and area residents were instructed to stay near shelters for fear of rocket or anti-tank missile attacks in revenge for the arrest of Saadi.
In a message to residents, the Sdot Negev and Eshkol regional councils said Tuesday evening all road closures would remain until Wednesday at least, following an assessment by the Israel Defense Forces.
Authorities had earlier indicated that the restriction could be lifted if the night passed peacefully. It was not immediately clear what prompted the shift in policy.
Multiple reports in Hebrew and Palestinian media Tuesday evening indicated Egyptian mediators had entered Gaza to attempt to talk Islamic Jihad out of any revenge attacks.
With fears of an imminent attack rampant, Channel 12 reported that Israeli officials passed a message via Egypt to leaders of Islamic Jihad and to Hamas, which rules the Palestinian enclave, indicating that Jerusalem was not interested in a fresh round of fighting, but would respond harshly to any attack or breach of its sovereignty.
The reports were not attributed to sources. Military officials often pass messages through Israeli media while insisting on total anonymity.
Tensions around the Strip spiked throughout Tuesday following the arrest of Saadi in Jenin overnight.
The arrest, and videos that showed him being dragged away by soldiers, stoked Palestinian anger and rumors that he had been slain.
Saadi was taken in by forces in Jenin along with his son-in-law and aide, Ashraf al-Jada, and another member of the terror group was killed in a gun battle with troops.
Some Palestinian reports said Saadi was hurt after being bitten by a military dog during his arrest.
The IDF later leaked images to reporters seeming to show Saadi in good condition, with the aim of calming tensions.
The military’s level of alert along the border with the Gaza Strip remained high Tuesday afternoon, though several roads closed earlier as a precautionary step were reopened, the Israel Defense Forces said.
In response to Saadi’s arrest, the Gaza-based group announced in a statement that it was declaring a state of “alertness” and raising its fighters’ “readiness.”
On Tuesday morning, the IDF said it ordered the closure of several main highways, train lines and lookout points along the Gaza border, following an uptick in activity by fighters tied to Islamic Jihad that posed an imminent and “a direct threat of a possible attack on Israeli civilians.”
The imminent threats included possible anti-tank guided missile fire, sniper attacks, and rocket fire.
In the afternoon hours, the IDF issued an update to the road closures, saying Route 232 between Mefalsim and Sa’ad and access roads for farmers nearby were closed, but the road between Sa’ad and Kerem Shalom had been reopened for traffic.
Route 242 and 2410 were also shuttered, as were Route 4 from Zikim Junction toward the Erez Crossing, and Route 34 between Yad Mordechai Junction and Nir Am Junction.
All towns along the border have alternative routes to exit, apart from Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Nahal Oz, which were entirely blockaded due to the restrictions.
The IDF also closed the Erez Crossing for pedestrians going in and out of Gaza. The border checkpoint is used by thousands of Palestinian workers every day.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid held a situational assessment with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, IDF chief Aviv Kohavi, Shin Bet security agency head Ronen Bar, National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata, Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other officials.
Gantz, who toured the West Bank security barrier area with Kohavi on Tuesday, warned against attempts to harm Israelis. “Any threat to the citizens of Israel will be met with a powerful response and we will of course be prepared for any scenario,” he said.
Channel 12 also reported that Israeli troops were on high alert in the West Bank as well, amid the possibility Islamic Jihad would attempt an attack there.
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.
נגרר על הרצפה וננשך על ידי כלב: הפלסטינים מפרסמים תיעוד ממעצרו של א-סעדי בג’נין אמש@kaisos1987 @ItayBlumental pic.twitter.com/SduBp1CN1I
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) August 2, 2022
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.