Last weekend, a shower of rockets on southern Israel was credited to Baha Abu al-Ata, a household name to Gazans but a name that was practically unknown to Israelis. But Ata, a leading figure in Islamic Jihad, had become a dominant figure in the Strip, associated with the rise and fall of tensions with Israel.
Ata headed the military council of the Al-Quds Brigade, which is the military arm of the Islamic Jihad. He commanded the organization's operations in northern Gaza, but also weilded great influence on the southern front.
Since Hamas is the sovereign power in Gaza, not Islamic Jihad, both Israeli and Palestinian sources suggested Ata had no responsibility toward Palestinian civilians, giving him greater freedom to act.
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Ata had several hundred fighters under his command and an arsenal of dozens of rockets at his disposal that could be fired at Israel, Gazan sources claimed. They added that he wasn't a lone wolf, but worked with a cohort of Islamic Jihad field commanders who have no qualms with contradicting their superiors, whether in Gaza or Beirut. However, Palestinian Authority intelligence sources told Haaretz that Israeli officials overestimated Ata's power to drive a frontal confrontation with Israel.
Another indication of Ata's status in Gaza was his involvement in talks between Gazan leaders and Egyptian officials, including a meeting that took place in October.
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Like other Jihad and Hamas leaders, Ata didn't give interviews. He operated in the shadows and his appearances in public were rare. He behaved as though he lived under constant mortal threat. Recently, Islamic Jihad stated that he was a freedom fighter for the Palestinian cause and issued a warning against harming him.
Though his clout had been mounting lately, threats to his life were nothing new. During Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, Israel attempted to assassinate him together with other leaders. An Israeli airstrike hit a building he was in, but Ata survived.
During Operation Protective Edge in 2014, his house was bombed, but the Islamic Jihad interpreted the strike as a mere warning, as Ata wasn't home at the time.
Following the rocket fire from Gaza to Israel on Friday, the Israeli army attacked Hamas targets in Gaza to signal Hamas that Islamic Jihad needs to be restrained. However, even though it has the ability, it had seemed that Hamas didn't try to restrain either the organization or Ata himself.
Within the Islamic Jihad, Ata was subordinate to the political leadership, headed by Secretary-General Ziad al-Nakhala, who operates out of Beirut and is believed to have ties with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and to Hezbollah.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad had not taken any action to muzzle Ata, likely because they were using him to exert pressure both on Israel and the mediating nations - Egypt and Qatar.
This article was originally published on November 4, 2019