JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said Wednesday it has arrested 10 Palestinians suspected of planning an attack against a navy ship off the Gaza coast, just days after it accused Gaza militants of using mass protests along its border with Israel as cover to stage further attacks.
The Shin Bet security service said the interrogation of the cell’s alleged leader revealed a plan to send a decoy boat from Gaza to distract the navy ship while another would fire a rocket at it. The plan called for militants to then try to abduct wounded sailors and keep them as bargaining chips for future prisoner swaps. Amin Jamaa was being indicted Wednesday at a court in southern Israel.
The Shin Bet identified him and his cohorts as members of the Islamic Jihad militant group and said they were abusing the easing of Israeli restrictions on Gaza fisherman to collect intelligence on Israel’s naval operations along the coast.
The disclosure comes after mass protests along the Israel-Gaza border on Friday, in which 18 Palestinians were killed. It marked the bloodiest day in Gaza since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war. Gaza’s Hamas leaders said it was the beginning of six weeks of intermittent border protests against an Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the territory. Israel has called it a provocation aimed at drawing it into battle.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the thwarting of the attack on the navy ship and linked it to Friday’s protests.
“This is proof of the true intentions of the terror groups in Gaza who are trying to hide their murderous plans by staging provocations along our border whose sole purpose is to provide cover for terrorists to carry out their attacks against Israel,” he said.
Daoud Shehab, an Islamic Jihad spokesman, said he had no information about the Israeli announcement but that his group was involved in “open confrontation” against it.
“It’s also our right to look for suitable ways to force Israel to release Palestinian prisoners,” he added.
Israel has come under criticism for using excessive force in dispersing Friday’s protests, with its open-fire policies scrutinized as amateur videos emerged purportedly showing two Palestinians being shot — one killed and one wounded — while not posing any apparent immediate threat to soldiers. Israel says the majority of those killed were known militants and only those who tried to breach the border were fired upon. It has also said some of the videos were fabricated.
Protests are planned to continue until May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding. The date is mourned by Palestinians as their “nakba,” or “catastrophe,” when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel’s creation. Most of Gaza’s 2 million people are descendants of Palestinian refugees.
Gaza’s continued border closure has made governing increasingly difficult for Hamas, an Islamic militant group sworn to Israel’s destruction that seized control of Gaza in 2007. Life in the coastal strip has deteriorated further in recent months, with rising unemployment, grinding poverty and daily blackouts that last for hours.
Hamas has been further weakened by international isolation and financial pressure by the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, along with three wars against Israel. It appears to be taking a gamble by using the protests to draw attention to Gaza without sparking another painful war.