Baha Abu al-Ata, the Islamic Jihad commander who was assassinated by Israel early Tuesday morning in the Gaza Strip, knew he was living on borrowed time. For the last few months, his name started appearing regularly in Israeli media, and he was labelled by the defense establishment as the main entity in charge of a recent string of rocket attacks emanating from the coastal enclave.
Abu al-Ata, who was not protected by the presence of any other civilians except for his wife, was killed in a strike carried out by Israel Air Force jets. Almost simultaneously, in a development that could turn out to be just as meaningful, reports emerged of an assassination attempt in Damascus attributed to Israel. There, too, missiles were fired from the air on the house of another senior Islamic Jihad official, Akram al-Ajouri. Reports said his family members died in the attack, although it remains unclear whether he did – at least according to Arab media reports.
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These two attacks have already sparked an exchange of fire between Israel and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. It hasn't been especially extensive so far, maybe because the Israeli air force threatens the cells in charge of providing missiles to those that launch them. Still, dozens of rockets have fallen on Israel, targeting an area spanning Gaza border communities and the central region of Gush Dan, activating alert sirens in Tel Aviv.
Whether the escalation lasts only a few days or leads to an extensive confrontation depends on two main factors: The stance of Hamas and the amount of Israeli casualties.
As the commander of the northern branch of Islamic Jihad's military wing in the Strip, Abu al-Ata was described in Israel as a serial trouble maker, acting independently, without taking instructions from anyone. He was said to be involved in extensive rocket fire in the last serious round of escalation in May. More limited attacks have also been attributed to him: An attack at the end of August (after an Israeli strike in Syria); an attack in September on the eve of the last Israeli election (in an incident that forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to leave the stage mid-speech at a campaign rally in the south); and an attack some 10 days ago, during which 11 rockets were fired from the Strip toward the southern Israeli city of Sderot.
In September, as Haaretz reported at the time, Netanyahu pressured senior defense officials to green light a preemptive action against the heads of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, chief among them being Abu al-Ata. The top military echelon was against such action, fearing that the timing was bad and that multiple civilians could be hurt.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit demanded that Netanyahu convene the defense establishment for a special discussion, saying that the move planned by the premier could lead to a war, just a week before the election. The mission was cancelled, but Abu al-Ata remained on Israel's radar. His assassination was finally approved in one of the defense cabinet's meetings at the beginning of November after rocket fire targeted Sderot. This time, it was the military that initiated the move, and according to Netanyahu, even pushed for it.
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To some extent, this is reminiscent of the 2012 targeted killing of Hamas's Ahmed Jabari, who was the second-in-command of the group's military wing. This week marks the seventh anniversary of Jabari's assassination, which triggered Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day Israeli ground campaign in Gaza.
This time, too, Israel tried to deceive the Palestinians and give them a false sense of calm – even though the decision to take out Abu al-Ata in retribution for an escalation by Hamas had been made for some time.
How things pan out from now very much depends on Hamas. The organization's top brass might up to a certain extent welcome the fact that Abu al-Ata is out of the picture, because he interrupted their efforts to maintain quiet and obtain further concessions from Israel through Egypt and Qatar.
Nonetheless, Hamas must consider the sentiments of the Gazan public and can't afford to portray itself as a collaborator of Israel. It will be difficult for the group to restrain Islamic Jihad, and it might even let some of its units blow off steam in retaliation for the Israeli hit. In these dangerous circumstances, it is not impossible that the organization could lose control and slip into a much wider escalation.
In early October, Islamic Jihad showed off its rocket arsenal at a parade in the Strip. According to its officials, these weapons are capable of hitting targets north of Tel Aviv. Out of the thousands of rockets at its disposal, many are short-range. But Islamic Jihad is also capable – as it proved Tuesday morning – of reaching central Israel and even deeper into the country's north, all the way to Hadera.
Another important issue pertains to the connection between these moves and Iran, with tensions escalating along Israel's northern border. The Israeli army has claimed in recent weeks that Abu al-Ata was operating independently, without getting instructions from Iran. This claim was made despite the fact that Israel officially tends to blame Iran for any negative development in the region. Still, the attempt attributed to Israel to hit a senior Islamic Jihad official in Damascus may point at a deeper connection between the group's leadership and other entities outside of Gaza and at Iran's influence on decision-making in the Strip.
Pressure for unity
It's impossible to ignore the political context of these recent military developments. Yes, the damage wreaked by Abu al-Ata, and the potential for further violence was known to Israel: The IDF even claims that he was about to carry out rocket and sniper attacks targeting Gaza-border communities in the coming days. Nonetheless, the escalation is not happening in a vaccuum, and is likely to put pressure on the ongoing political negotiations in Israel.
For Netanyahu, this is a great excuse to drag Kahol Lavan into a unity government. And anyone who knows Benny Gantz from his long years of service in the Israeli army can detect from his body language (and read between the lines of his statements) that he really wants to share the responsibility of leading the country.
The other officials in Kahol Lavan think differently, but when rockets fly and right-wing activists deliberately attack party leaders as if they were Arab-loving leftists, the notion of a minority government supported from outside the coalition by the Arab Joint List seems more and more unlikely.
Following the hit in Gaza, Israel conveyed the following messages: This was a surgical, precise action. We made a big effort to limit the amount of civilian casualties. Our confrontation is with Islamic Jihad alone at the moment, and we have no intention to return to a targeted assassination policy. The line connecting the dots in these statements indicates that Israel will accept a few days of limited escalation, and will then let the other side back off and return to the hesitant cease-fire that has been in place for the past year and a half.
However, the combination between the move in Gaza and the attack attributed to Israel in Damascus – at the very heart of an area populated by foreign embassies, which was always considered immune to hits – may prove to be a step too far. The political result of Tuesday's events could serve Netanyahu, and might even be convenient for Gantz. But the military repercussions are not yet entirely clear, and Israel is far from being in full control of the upcoming developments.