Baha Abu al-Ata, the senior Islamic Jihad commander whom Israel assassinated on Tuesday, did more than anyone else to undermine the south’s stability over the last year. Hamas, Egypt and even his own organization lost influence over him, and he began acting like an independent neighborhood thug.
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That he was killed now, defense officials said, wasn’t because he had suddenly become more dangerous; it was mainly a question of opportunity. But they are hopeful his death will restore the quiet needed for a longer-term agreement between Israel and Hamas.
The Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service had prepared a plan to kill Abu al-Ata two years ago, but there were arguments over the proper timing. The army thought (and still thinks) that priority should go to tensions in the north, whereas Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman thought Abu al-Ata should be killed the moment it became possible. But until recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the security cabinet sided with the army.
The army’s concern was that if fighting erupted following the assassination, there was no way to predict how much damage it would cause or how long it would last. Since the air force could deal with Abu al-Ata’s weapons (rockets, snipers and drones), it argued, it was better to live with his attacks than to risk undermining preparedness for a possible war in the north.
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In late 2018, senior defense officials once again discussed assassinating Abu al-Ata. Avigdor Lieberman, who was defense minister at that time, said on Tuesday that Netanyahu had opposed doing so. But he neglected to mention that defense officials did, too, due to an impending operation they considered more important.
In recent months, however, Abu al-Ata’s status in the Gaza Strip has risen, in part thanks to Israel’s own actions. Thus defense officials revisited the question of how to stop him.
That Abu al-Ata, 42 at his death, became such a thorn in everyone’s side may seem surprising. “He wasn’t particularly brilliant or smart, far from it,” one defense official said.
Even Islamic Jihad’s leadership saw him as nothing but a thug – but one whose aggressive character could be useful. When it realized that unlike Hamas, Islamic Jihad would reap no special benefits from the truce with Israel that Egypt was trying to broker, it pulled him out again and again to shoot at Israeli soldiers and fire rockets and mortars, as a way of reminding everyone of its existence.
But eventually, Islamic Jihad lost control of him. That became most obvious earlier this year, when Abu al-Ata decided on his own to launch rockets at Tel Aviv while an Egyptian mediator was in Gaza meeting with senior Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials about a possible truce with Israel.
Both organizations took the unusual step of disavowing responsibility for the launch and blaming it on “rebels.” And it led Hamas to conclude, like Israel, that Abu al-Ata had become a disruptive and uncontrollable factor.
Abu al-Ata became an Islamic Jihad brigade commander at age 30. For the last five years, he commanded its northern brigade.
His rebellious character won him fans in Gaza, as did his survival of two wars and repeated Israeli attempts to kill him. They saw him as a man who feared nothing and bowed to no authority. But Israeli intelligence viewed him as a gang leader rather than an officer in a hierarchical military organization, which Islamic Jihad purports to be.
Contrary to claims made after his death, Abu al-Ata was never close to Iran. Israeli officials who have monitored him for years said he had no direct contact with Tehran and did not receive orders from it to attack Israel.
But these officials, like Hamas and Egyptian officials, say that even without explicit orders, he had acted for months in a way he believed would help Iran. He thought the Iranians would view attacks on Israel as serving their interests by disrupting efforts to reach a truce, and that he would thereby be seen as a major-league player.
In April, unusually, the IDF tabbed him as the person responsible for the escalation in Gaza. Until then, Israel had officially held Hamas responsible.
Defense officials understood that naming Abu al-Ata would give him the status of a rising star, but thought this was the only way to stop him short of killing him. The idea was that naming him would lead Hamas and Islamic Jihad to try to restrain him.
To some extent, this idea worked: He was invited to Egypt for truce talks with Egyptian, Hamas and Islamic Jihad officials, and Israel let him attend. But contrary to expectations, this didn’t moderate him; it merely confirmed his view of himself as a big-time operator. He wasn’t swayed by being warned that he was leading Gaza into an escalation that would undermine its security and economy.
Consequently, Israel concluded there was no choice but to kill him. The problem was that he realized he was a target and accordingly took precautions.
In recent months, he stayed in northern Gaza, where he had hideouts and loyal followers. He changed his hideouts frequently and always stayed near civilians to make it hard for Israel to kill him without also killing innocents.
Various plans for assassinating him were prepared. But it was only recently that the Shin Bet identified a viable opportunity. And the moment defense officials realized he had exposed himself in a way that made it possible to kill him with minimal civilian casualties, the security cabinet approved the operation.