Senior Israeli officials expressed optimism Monday morning about the prospect of a fresh truce with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but stressed that Jerusalem had not agreed to demands for the release of recently arrested members of the terror group.
“We can now start looking at the next phase,” said an official who briefed Israeli journalists.
The Egyptian-brokered deal, which took effect at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, ended a three-day standoff that began Friday with Israeli strikes that killed a PIJ commander. Palestinian militants then fired about 1,100 rockets into Israeli territory, while Israel Defense Forces attacked Islamic Jihad targets and killed one of the Iran-backed group’s top military leaders in Gaza.
There were also signs that Operation Breaking Dawn, and the rapid manner in which it ended, would lead to additional progress in talks with Hamas and the PIJ in Gaza, officials said.
“We are fully aware that this is an opportunity that we don’t want to miss,” said one official, highlighting ongoing efforts to return Israeli civilian detainees and the bodies of IDF soldiers held by Hamas. , among other essentials.
“Signals have been received from Hamas in recent weeks,” the official added. “We want to take things forward, and not just with a ceasefire with the PIJ.”
The terrorist group Hamas has two living Israelis – Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed – as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers: Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin.
Israel and Hamas have held indirect talks in an attempt to reach a prisoner exchange deal. A similar deal in 2011 to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from the clutches of Hamas led to the release of 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners, many of whom were convicted.
However, Israel will not release PIJ prisoners whom the organization wants freed.
During the ceasefire talks, Israel did not agree to release Palestinian Islamic Jihad member Khalil al-Awda, who is on hunger strike to protest his detention by Israel without charge, and Bassam al-Saadi, the terrorist group’s West Bank leader. The arrests were made last week in what is believed to be a flare-up of violence in Gaza, officials said.
The Times of Israel has reported that Israel has no intention of releasing the prisoners early.
Officials expressed satisfaction with Israel’s diplomatic efforts leading up to and during the operation, pointing to Egypt, Qatar and the United States as key players.
“They already knew all the elements of our decision-making and our efforts and conviction to avoid action. [the operation] was as limited as possible,” said an official.
Jerusalem initially expected that the PIJ would abandon plans to attack Israel under pressure from the countries mentioned above – and from Hamas – to abandon the need for the operation, officials said.
As tensions rose, Israel restricted movement near the Gaza border to reduce friction and make it harder for the PIJ to launch sniper or anti-tank attacks, but realized it could not keep its border towns in that situation for long.
Once Israel determined that escalation was unavoidable, the objective was to attack PIJ cells and senior leaders while avoiding attacks on Hamas targets.
Israel also sought to achieve a rapid de-escalation, deciding that an extended operation risked inadvertent damage that would push Hamas into combat.
Ceasefire efforts began on Saturday, the second day of the operation. “We understand that PIJ is not achieving what it wants. The strike against it was significant,” said an official.
The fact that the secretary general of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad Nakhleh, was in Tehran meeting with the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps made it difficult for him to agree to a ceasefire, according to officials.
A temporary humanitarian ceasefire was discussed on Saturday night, but Prime Minister Yair Lapid rejected the offer, insisting on a complete cessation of hostilities.
Israel’s political leadership initially wanted the cease-fire to take effect Sunday afternoon, officials revealed, but had to wait a few more hours to allow the IDF to complete the operation.
Officials were particularly pleased with Egypt’s stance. “Egyptian mediation was very intensive; We have a very close relationship with them.”
The official praised Qatar’s role and called the Gulf country a “player for creating economic stability”.
Israel does not have diplomatic relations with Qatar, although the two countries maintained trade and low-level diplomatic relations from 1996–2009. Since then, there have been some continuous contacts, especially on matters related to the Gaza Strip.
Officials also said that Lapid understood the sensibilities of launching a military campaign before the election and tried to fully explain his rationale to ministers and the public.
Israel will hold its fifth election on November 1, 2019.
Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and has fought Israel in four major operations since Israel withdrew from the strip in 2005, pressured the PIJ to agree to a ceasefire, according to officials, warning that “[PIJ] The population is at risk.”
“We knew all along that Hamas wanted to stay out of the conflict,” the official said.
However, he said, Hamas failed in its responsibility to stop the conflict by putting pressure on the PIJ before it started.
“This is expected from someone who rules the strip and its population,” said one of the briefers.
Officials argue that Israel’s military and civilian policies over the past year have kept Hamas out of the fighting. “That includes Operation Guardian of the Walls and an important financial boost to the population.”
Preventing thousands of workers from entering Israel could mean financial harm to Gazan families, a blow to Hamas that Israel wants, he said. In June, Israel increased the number of work permits for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to 14,000, a 100% increase from the previous summer.
A return to Israel’s regular policies toward Gaza would be gradual and would happen in a way that would “send a message about the future,” one official said.
These policies are expected to be implemented again in the next few days.
On Monday, the Palestinian military liaison announced that the crossings between Israel and Gaza would be reopened for humanitarian purposes following a security assessment.
The reopening allowed renewed fuel shipments to Gaza, after the shutdown greatly reduced operations at the Strip’s only power plant.
The Defense Ministry body, widely known by its acronym COGAT, said a meeting would be held to consider resuming the crossing if peace is maintained in the south.
The Erez terminal between Israel and Gaza, which serves as the only pedestrian crossing for Palestinians in the coastal enclave, came under mortar fire from Gaza on Sunday, according to the Defense Ministry.
Emmanuel Fabian contributed to this report.