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Peace and Conflict

April 5th - Day 181 of the war: News in Brief

Daily Israel Update 5th April 2024 via BICom 

1. Israel continues to brace itself for an Iranian response to Monday's assassination of senior IRGC commander Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi in Damascus. Reservists have been called up to reinforce the nation’s aerial defences, while all leave for combat soldiers has been cancelled. Public concern led to panic buying of goods in some areas, prompting IDF Spokesperson Hagari to publicly clarify that there was no change in Home Front Command’s instructions and that there was no need to stock up on supplies. Government officials did tell Israel’s Kan Radio that although there was no expectation that Iran would escalate to all-out war, the state is preparing for the prospect of missile fire from Iranian soil. Authorities will be especially vigilant for an Iranian response today, Iran’s “Quds Day”, when a funeral ceremony will be held for Zahedi and the other IRGC members killed on Tuesday. Prime Minister Netanyahu told the Security Cabinet yesterday that "For years, Iran has been acting against us both directly and via its proxies; therefore, Israel is acting against Iran and its proxies, defensively and offensively. We will know how to defend ourselves and we will act according to the simple principle of whoever harms us or plans to harm us, we will harm them.” In the West Bank, too, Fatah, the main faction in the Palestinian Authority, has accused Iran of seeking to spread chaos in the territory. It would not permit “our sacred cause and the blood of our people to be exploited,” it said. (For more on the assassination of Zahedi and the context of Israel challenging Iranian activity on its northern border, see BICOM’s recent analysis.)

2. This morning, 65,000 Muslim worshippers attended Fajr (dawn) prayers in Jerusalem, the final Friday of Ramadan. Prayers passed off largely peacefully. Eight people were arrested for chants in support of Hamas. Overall, Ramadan has thus far proceeded without major incidents, and the police said that such chanting harms “first and foremost the normative Muslim public who come to the Temple Mount and do not take part in those serious incitement demonstrations.” Thousands of extra officers will be deployed in Jerusalem ahead of Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night of the year in Islam.

3. In a call with Prime Minister Netanyahu, US President Biden yesterday delivered his sternest warning yet regarding US support for Israel’s war in Gaza. The White House said that Biden urged Israel to “announce and implement a series of specific, concrete and measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering and the safety of aid workers.” Failure to do so, he said, would cause the US to review its support. US policy, he said, “will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.” Biden also called for “an immediate ceasefire,” a move he said “is essential to stabilise and improve the humanitarian situation and protect innocent civilians, and he urged the prime minister to empower his negotiators to conclude a deal without delay to bring the hostages home.” Biden also demanded that those responsible for the killing of seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen organisation this week be prosecuted.

4. Israel has committed to increasing the volume of humanitarian aid entering the Gaza Strip and to speeding up its transfer. The Erez Crossing between Gaza and Israel will be opened for the first time since October 7th, allowing more aid to flow. The port of Ashdod will also be opened to aid. In further signs of a loosening of Israelis restrictions, Israel Hayom revealed that Israel has also begun working with local Gazans affiliated with Fatah to coordinate and secure the delivery and distribution of aid in the Strip. Senior Palestinian Authority official Majed Faraj, the head of the its General Intelligence Service, is thought to have been critical in securing this cooperation. The US has long pushed for a substantial role to be played by a reformed PA in Gaza, an idea Netanyahu has generally rejected.

5. Indictments have been filed against six Arab citizens of Israel and one resident of the West Bank accused of plotting terror attacks in Israel. The terror cell, which called itself “Masra al-Rasul”, planned to launch multiple attacks on the government complex in Jerusalem, Ben Gurion Airport, and on military and security bases. Another element was to have been an assassination attempt, using an RPG, on National Security Minister Ben Gvir in his home settlement of Kiryat Arba. The group also planned to kidnap an Israeli citizen to use as ransom for the release of Palestinian security prisoners. The cell began to form in early 2023, led by Bilal Nasasra of Rahat, who recruited others and sought cooperation and funding from Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In similar news, it was revealed yesterday that three young men from East Jerusalem pledged allegiance to ISIS about a month ago and were planning a series of gun and IED attacks, including on Jerusalem’s Teddy Stadium and a local police precinct. This morning, a Palestinian man was killed after throwing an explosive device at Border Police officers conducting a raid in the West Bank city of Tulkarem.  

6. Yesterday, Israel experienced rocket fire from the Gaza Strip for the first time in over a week, whilst attacks have continued on Israel's north. Rocket fire is now far rarer from Gaza, following Israel’s degrading of terror groups’ capacity in the Strip, and the 12,000 rockets fired since October 7th having depleted their arsenals. Palestinian Islamic Jihad has claimed responsibility for the attacks from Gaza which targeted Sderot, Netivot, and Ashkelon. Sirens were also heard in Kfar Aza. Dishon and Malkia were targeted in the north, and an anti-tank missile was fired from Lebanon at Shlomi where it hit a civilian house. No injuries or casualties were reported. The IDF struck the sites rockets were launched from and conducted operations elsewhere in the Strip. IDF fighter jets struck over 30 targets over the last day while troops hit a number of targets in Khan Yunis.

7. Head of the Mossad Barnea and CIA Director Burns are expected to travel to Cairo this weekend to meet with Egyptian counterparts and the Qatari Prime Minister in an attempt to reach a breakthrough in hostage release negotiations with Hamas. Talks are currently deadlocked given Hamas’s refusal to compromise on its conditions, namely accepting nothing less than a permanent ceasefire and the IDF’s full withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. While Israel remains open to a temporary ceasefire in exchange for the release of elderly, young, female, and unwell hostages, it maintains its position that only military pressure will help it secure a deal with Hamas. Israel is understood to have empowered its negotiators to be even more flexible, including on the potential return of residents to northern Gaza. The complexities involved in this step include how many Gazans will be permitted to return and at what pace; will certain demographics, for example fighting-age men, be allowed to return; will IDF screenings be implemented and to what degree and extent.

8. The US continues to work with Israel on pursuing progress on a future normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia. Minister Dermer is due to travel to Washington next week where he is set to meet with Saudi ambassador to the US, Reema bint Bandar Al Saud. Israel is said to be pushing to ensure that any deal not include the development of a nuclear programme on Saudi soil. This was previously thought to have been a central element in Riyadh’s demands from the US regarding normalisation with Israel, along with other extensive defence commitments.

9. The past week has seen a wave of anti-government protests organised by a coalition of activists, some of whom were active in opposing the government’s judicial reform attempts. Their main calls are for Netanyahu’s resignation following his inability to end the current war in Gaza, and for Israel to hold early elections. Thousands of protestors assembled by the Knesset and prime minister’s residence, which a large group of people attempted to breach on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, activists and relatives of hostages held in Gaza splattered yellow paint over the Knesset’s visitors’ gallery to protest a perceived lack of government action to free their loved ones. In Tel Aviv, the main organisation lobbying on behalf of the families of Israeli hostages in Gaza said it would cease its Saturday night rallies in what has come to be known as Hostages Square and instead join in anti-government protests. Future protests in both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are becoming increasingly likely.

10. War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz has, for the first time, called for the holding of elections in September so as to “maintain unity” and “renew trust” in the government. In a televised briefing, Gantz said “We must agree on a date for elections in September, about a year from the war… Setting such a date will allow us to continue the military effort while signalling to the citizens of Israel that we will soon renew their trust in us”. Despite having previously been part of the opposition, Gantz joined the Israeli government on an emergency basis in October and remains a favourite candidate to potentially replace Netanyahu. Gantz has also suggested that the holding of elections could provide Israel with an increased level of international legitimacy. Likud and Netanyahu have consistently opposed the holding of elections until this war’s conclusion, saying that they “would inevitably lead to paralysis” and undermine the IDF’s ability to fight in Gaza. Polling places Gantz well ahead of Netanyahu, projecting his National Unity party as winning 32 out of 120 Knesset seats.