‘Israel did not agree to free Islamic Jihad prisoners in Gaza ceasefire’

Israel didn't agree to release the Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior member Bassam al-Saadi as part of the Gaza ceasefire talks to end Operation Breaking Dawn.

 A picture taken on August 5, 2022, shows Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza City in retaliation to earlier Israeli airstrikes.  (photo credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)
A picture taken on August 5, 2022, shows Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza City in retaliation to earlier Israeli airstrikes.
(photo credit: MOHAMMED ABED/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel did not agree to release Palestinian Islamic Jihad prisoners as part of ceasefire talks to end Operation Breaking Dawn, a senior Israeli diplomatic source said on Sunday, hours after the hostilities ended.

Before the ceasefire went into effect at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, Islamic Jihad announced that Israel would release as soon as possible one of the terrorist group’s senior members, Bassam al-Saadi, who was arrested last week, as well as administrative detainee Khalil Awawda, to transfer him for medical treatment. Egyptian state media also said that Cairo would work to that end.

“Israel did not agree to release any of the prisoners,” said the senior source. “The Egyptians asked, and we will allow a dialogue on the situation of the prisoners” on how they are faring, from a humanitarian perspective.

Leveraging messages about Hamas's Israeli captives

The senior Israeli source said that Israel has a “diplomatic opportunity” following Operation Breaking Dawn, and that Israel wants to leverage recent messages from Hamas about Israeli captives.

 POLICE INSPECT a vehicle that was damaged following a rocket attack from Gaza, in Ashkelon on Saturday. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS) POLICE INSPECT a vehicle that was damaged following a rocket attack from Gaza, in Ashkelon on Saturday. (credit: AMIR COHEN/REUTERS)

Hamas has been holding Israelis Hisham al-Sayed and Abera Mengistu in captivity, as well as the bodies of soldiers Hadar Goldin and Oren Shaul. Hamas recently released a video showing al-Sayed in poor health.

“We want to take this forward and not just be satisfied with a quiet Islamic Jihad,” he said. “The captives are a high priority for Prime Minister [Yair] Lapid. We are acting to exhaust every opportunity to deal with this humanitarian matter.”

“Israel did not agree to release any of the prisoners.”

Senior Israeli diplomatic source

At the same time, he said, “Israel did not agree to release any of the prisoners.”

Gaza: A delicate and complex situation

Gaza remains delicate, the source said, with two million residents and a “complex economic situation” that could boil over at any time.

Israeli action over the past year to improve the economic situation, such as allowing into Israel more Palestinian workers from Gaza, contributed to stability and to Hamas staying out of the latest round of fighting, according to the source.

Looking at the outset of the Gaza operation, which began on Friday, the source in Jerusalem said that “we did not enter it by choice.” IDF commanders in Gaza and in Judea and Samaria identified an escalation in Islamic Jihad activity two weeks ago.

“When we made the arrest [of al-Saadi] in Judea and Samaria, we did not know that it would be the toothpick that would ignite a fire,” the source admitted.

He said that Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz first sought ways to de-escalate and were in contact with Egypt, which in turn talked to Hamas to lower the level of tension. In that way, ceasefire talks started before Operation Breaking Dawn even began, and continued throughout.

Though Israel did not want to enter into an operation in Gaza, “we couldn’t keep the envelope in [a lockdown] situation, but we couldn’t ignore Islamic Jihad’s intention to shoot.”

Israel was intent on keeping the operation focused on Islamic Jihad, without drawing in Hamas, and therefore only sought to start it when there was an “operational opportunity” or the chance to stop a terrorist attack – which turned out to be when Israel killed top Islamic Jihad commander Tayseer al-Jabari on Friday.

Jerusalem thought that while it was probable that Hamas would not want to join the fighting, it still prepared for the possibility. The source added that the terrorist group controlling Gaza did not exercise its authority to stop Islamic Jihad from attacking.

Israel-Islamic Jihad ceasefire

Lapid emphasized the importance of constant communication with parties abroad, whether Egypt and Qatar who were involved in ceasefire talks, or the international community more broadly, especially the US, said the senior diplomatic source. Israel communicated to all parties that it is seeking to have as narrow an operation as possible.

The source said US President Joe Biden’s statement at the end of the fighting showed the level of support from Washington. In welcoming the ceasefire on Sunday night, Biden said his “support for Israel’s security is long-standing and unwavering – including its right to defend itself against attacks. Over these recent days, Israel has defended its people from indiscriminate rocket attacks launched by the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the United States is proud of our support for Israel’s Iron Dome, which intercepted hundreds of rockets and saved countless lives.”

The president also “commended Prime Minister Yair Lapid and his government’s steady leadership throughout the crisis.”

Egypt began negotiating intensively for a ceasefire on Saturday, and was the dominant party in those talks. Jordan played a key role in ensuring there was no violence on the Temple Mount on Sunday, when Jews marked the Tisha Be’av fast mourning the destruction of the two Temples on the site.

Israel considered a humanitarian ceasefire on Saturday night to take place on Sunday morning, the source said, which would allow diesel fuel into Gaza so there would be more hours of electricity for residents. However, when Islamic Jihad shot a rocket toward Jerusalem the following day, Israel said it would have to be a full ceasefire or nothing.

Israel expected a full ceasefire by Sunday afternoon, but Islamic Jihad continued making demands.

Within Israel, Lapid, Gantz and other relevant arms of government were very synchronized, the source said, allowing for smoother work. Alternate Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took part in a number of key meetings during the operation.