Analysis

For Israel, Gaza Comes Second to Iran — but That May Change

Israel sees Baha Abu al-Ata, an Islamic Jihad commander most likely responsible for Friday's rocket fire, as a local bully whose star is briefly shining

Islamic jihad militants take part in a military show marking the 32nd anniversary of the organisation's founding, in the central Gaza Strip October 3, 2019.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Not everything that happens in the Middle East is a worldwide Iranian plot. Israel’s list of talking points consistently gives pride of place to Tehran, but quite often causes can also be found closer to home. That would seem to be the case for the rocket volleys fired Friday evening at Sderot from the Gaza Strip, after a relatively long period of quiet.

At the time of this writing, it appears that Islamic Jihad militants in the Strip were behind the rocket strikes. While the organization does receive funds from Iran and sometimes complies with its directives, it is not a blindly obedient cell. In this case, there are clear indicators pointing to Baha Abu al-Ata, commander of the northern brigade of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Abu al-Ata’s name is suddenly on the lips of Israeli journalists, and it’s likely that he’s getting a kick out of it. There’s a good reason for his newfound fame: He was responsible for many of the rockets fired from the Strip into Israel over the past year.

Israeli defense officials view Abu al-Ata as a local bully whose star is briefly shining. He occasionally takes action against Israel in order to reinforce his position in the Strip vis-a-vis both the Hamas regime and his rivals within Islamic Jihad. He didn’t even have a specific reason for Friday’s flare-up. No one was killed by Israeli fire during the regular weekly protests along the border with Israel, nor was there an exceptional level of violence.

Israel’s southern neighbor has also taken notice of Abu al-Ata. Egyptian intelligence officials have been trying to lock him into a bear hug recently, and he was summoned to Cairo a few times as part of delegations of senior Islamic Jihad figures in the Strip. The Egyptians even freed a few dozen Palestinian Islamic Jihad activists who were jailed or detained in Egypt, in a bid to ease tensions in Gaza.

On Thursday a single rocket was fired into Israel, landing without incident in an open area. On Friday evening, though, two volleys, around 10 rockets in all, were launched at Sderot. Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. One rocket landed in the yard of a home, causing damage, and a few residents were treated for psychological trauma.

Rockets intercepted over the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, 2018.
Amir Cohen / Reuters

The incident placed Israel in a dilemma, forcing it to choose between retaliating against Islamic Jihad, the perpetrator, or once again laying the blame on Hamas, as the ruling authority in the Strip. In the end, Israel went with the latter option. The military hit a relatively large number of Hamas targets, but only after a delay of a few hours, giving the organization time to withdraw from its positions. Despite the delay, one Palestinian was killed and another two were wounded in the attacks. Hamas has threatened to respond, but has not yet done so.

The idea behind Israel’s policy is that it’s up to Hamas to rein in Islamic Jihad. That logic was also expressed in a statement issued by the Spokesperson’s Unit of the Israel Defense Forces after the strike. Israel hopes that the hits on its targets will spur Hamas to take action against Abu Al-Ata. That has not yet happened, whether because Hamas is afraid to take on the Islamic Jihad brigade commander, who is gaining popularity as a leader of violent resistance, or because Hamas finds it convenient for Israel to occasionally feel a little military pressure, in the hopes that it will accelerate the economic gestures and greater freedom of movement that Egypt has long promised to Gazans.

There are additional factors that play a role in Israel’s decision. The Netanyahu government has long pursued a policy of containment in the Strip, out of a desire to avoid a military conflict. This was the case when incendiary kites and balloons launched from Gaza ignited fires in Israel, and also during periods when hundreds of rockets were fired into southern Israel. (In the most serious round, in May, four Israelis were killed.)

A Palestinian man inspects a Hamas after it was targeted by Israeli warplanes in the southern Gaza Strip November 2, 2019.
\ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

Now there is another serious cause for restraint — the assumption that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards will attempt additional attacks on Israel’s northern front in retaliation for previous Israeli attacks, further escalating Israeli-Iranian tensions. When the north is the top priority, Gaza becomes a secondary arena. It won’t necessarily remain so. An Israeli action against Islamic Jihad; a calculated decision by Hamas to increase the friction at the border in the hope of ultimately bringing about an easing of restrictions; escalation at the northern border that will also affect Gaza — any of these scenarios could heat up the Strip far beyond the events of the weekend.