Mounting anger grew Friday among residents of the Gaza border communities facing road closures and restrictions for the fourth day in a row, as Israel remained on high alert for a potential attack along the border with the Strip.
The lockdown began on Tuesday and is set to continue through the weekend, amid fears of an imminent attack by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, after the IDF arrested its West Bank leader on Monday night.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid was holding a fresh consultation with security chiefs on Friday morning.
Alon Davidi, Mayor of Sderot, told 103FM radio on Friday that he was “angry” at the closure, and claimed the government “prefers to keep us in this situation in order to not go to war.”
“I am against this,” he said, criticizing the government’s handling of the situation.
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Residents of border communities also expressed their frustration on the fourth day of the lockdown, as the situation remains tense.
Daniel Gold, a young resident of Kibbutz Kissufim told the Times of Israel that the situation has been “extremely stressful,” as he has been unable to leave the community since the closure.
An Israeli soldier places spikes on a road near the border with the Gaza Strip on August 4, 2022. (Flash90)
“I’ve had to put everything on hold,” he said, as the Kibbutz’s only bus route has not operated since Tuesday.
Albert Gabai, a resident of Sderot told the Walla news site: “It is a disgrace that we have arrived at a situation where the arrest of a terrorist has paralyzed settlements around the Gaza Strip,” and demanded government ministers provide answers to the residents of the border communities.
Some of the residents struck a more understanding tone with regard to the situation.
Rivka Ben Ari, a resident of Kissufim, told the Times of Israel that the closure had “definitely” impacted life on the border, and made travel to and from her community difficult.
She said it was the first time a lockdown had been placed “exclusively to protect the residents,” and without an active escalation, but said she believed “the army is taking all the right steps to protect us.”
The sentiments were echoed by Raz Sofer, of nearby Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, who said: “We’re confident the army is doing its best to do what it must to keep us safe,” and added he was happy to wait out the lockdown for as long as was needed.
IDF chief Aviv Kohavi (right) speaks with Nimrod Aloni, chief of the Gaza Division, near the border with the Gaza Strip, August 4, 2022. (Israel Defense 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 any attack on the border.
Israel’s Channel 12 news, citing an unnamed Palestinian source, said the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror group had arrested some Islamic Jihad members, in a bid to prevent an attack.
The IDF announced it was shoring up its forces along the border on Thursday with engineering, infantry, armored and special forces.
Lapid on Thursday spoke by phone with leaders of border communities and told them he won’t allow the current situation to continue for much longer, according to his office.
But the chief of the military’s Gaza Division told residents that the road closures would last “as long as necessary,” and that “the safety of the residents comes first.”
Earlier Thursday, Gadi Yarkoni, head of the local Eshkol Regional Council, told the Kan public broadcaster that “there is a concrete threat of attempted sniping at civilians or soldiers. This forced us to take cover. Where there is no choice, human life comes first.”
Prime Minister and Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid speaks to party activists during a Yesh Atid party conference in Tel Aviv, August 3, 2022. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
In an assessment held later on Thursday, Lapid said Israel “won’t accept a situation in which terror groups disrupt the residents’ daily lives,” according to his office. “We understand the difficulty experienced by the southern residents, and we share it.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, meanwhile, instructed security officials to prepare “various civilian and military measures” in order to remove the Islamic Jihad threat.
According to Gantz’s office, during a meeting with top military and security officials, he also instructed the security establishment to assist residents of towns along the border, and to continue to assess the situation so that southern Israel can return to “full normalcy.”
“The defense minister emphasized that all operational activity in all areas will continue,” his office said.
Military chief Aviv Kohavi and Gantz met separately on Thursday evening with mayors and officials of Gaza border communities, to update them on preparation for the coming days.
Earlier Thursday, Kohavi toured the military’s Gaza Division and instructed them 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.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz (center) meets top military and security officials at the Defense Ministry offices in Tel Aviv, August 4, 2022. (Nicole Laskavi/Defense Ministry)
Tensions around the Strip spiked following the arrest of Islamic Jihad’s West Bank leader, Bassam Saadi, in Jenin on Monday night. Saadi was taken in by forces in Jenin along with his son-in-law and aide, Ashraf al-Jada; another member of the terror group was killed in a gun battle with troops.
In response to Saadi’s arrest, the Gaza-based terror group announced in a statement that it was declaring a state of “alertness” and raising its fighters’ “readiness.”
Early Tuesday morning, the IDF said it had 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 “direct threat of a possible attack on Israeli civilians.”
Most towns along the border have alternative routes to exit, apart from Kerem Shalom and Kibbutz Nahal Oz which were entirely blockaded. Some people, due to emergencies, have been allowed in and out by the army at specific time intervals.
Israel has reportedly warned terror groups based in the enclave that it would respond forcefully to any revenge attack following Saadi’s arrest.
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.
The West Bank head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group, Bassem Saadi, is seen shortly after his arrest by Israeli troops on August 2, 2022. (Courtesy)
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 terrorist activity. Gunmen and other attackers behind several deadly terrorist attacks earlier this year came from the city and its refugee camp.
ToI Staff contributed to this report