Analysis |

For Islamic Jihad, Revenge for Israel's Killing of Gaza Leader Isn't a Top Priority

Palestinian group would use Baha Abu al-Ata’s death for a revamp, while ruling Hamas may find itself trapped in a dangerous paradox

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Islamic Jihad fighters marching in Gaza, October 4, 2018.
Islamic Jihad fighters marching in Gaza, October 4, 2018.Credit: Adel Hana / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Baha Abu al-Ata was invited to Cairo in the second half of October with Islamic Jihad's leaders from Gaza and beyond, headed by Ziad Nakhalah, to discuss the future of the calm between Israel and the Strip. The Islamic Jihad officials reported that the talks went well and created a basis for cooperation between their organization and Hamas, and between those two groups and Egypt.

Cairo even made a gesture important for those understandings by releasing 25 Islamic Jihad prisoners, who returned to the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing accompanied by the organization’s leaders. According to one report, Israel agreed to the release of the prisoners and helped to carefully coordinate it.

Haaretz WeeklyCredit: Haaretz

The fact that Egyptian intelligence summoned the heads of Islamic Jihad’s military and political wings shows that Cairo was aware of the disputes between the group’s various leaderships and thus the need to obtain a commitment from all of them, not just the political wing.

Despite the Egyptians’ gesture and the threat that without a comprehensive agreement Israel might embark on a major war on Gaza, about 10 days later Islamic Jihad launched rockets on Israeli communities near Gaza, embarrassing Egypt and Hamas and leading to a dispute at Egyptian intelligence on continuing ties with Islamic Jihad. Cairo threatened to stop its mediation with Israel, a threat directed mainly at Hamas, if the group didn’t rein in Islamic Jihad.

Israel placed the blame for the breakdown of the agreement mainly on Abu al-Ata, Islamic Jihad’s commander of Gaza’s northern sector, describing him as a rebel who didn't obey the leadership and the one responsible for rocket fire at Israel.

Abu al-Ata isn’t the only rebel. Unlike Hamas, which is built on a strict hierarchy and total obedience to its policies and orders, Islamic Jihad is splintered and conflict-ridden, both on the personal level and on the questions of intra-Palestinian reconciliation with Fatah and ties with Iran. It’s too easy to describe the organization as directly subservient to Iran, funded by it and obedient to all its directives. The group has such financial woes that it can hardly pay its salaries, which shows that if Iran is funding it, this isn't enough, or at least it’s not enough to bind the political leaders to Tehran.

Mourners carry the body of Abu Al-Atta during his funeral in Gaza City November 12, 2019. Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

War of succession

Last year, after Nakhalah was elected Islamic Jihad’s political leader after his predecessor Ramadan Shalah stepped down due to ill health - he is suffering from heart disease and is reportedly now in a coma - Iran demanded that Mohammed al-Hindi not be appointed second-in-command. Hindi, to Iran’s displeasure, believes that Islamic Jihad should widen its circle of friends, foster ties with Turkey and Qatar and see Egypt and Saudi Arabia as allies. Iranian pressure was only partially successful. Hindi, Nakhalah’s friend, popular with Hamas’ various wings and considered a dominant leader in Islamic Jihad, wasn’t appointed Nakhalah’s deputy, but he’s regarded as such.

The man who won second place in last year’s election is Akram al-Ajouri, whom Israel also tried to assassinate with a bomb in his Damascus home. Ajouri’s son was killed in the blast, but Ajouri’s fate is unclear.

Ajouri, who enjoys wide support and strong ties with Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza and served as a mediator with Iran, was to be Shalah’s successor, but a conflict between him and Shalah seems to have prevented the appointment. What’s more, the group decided to hold elections for the first time since its founding instead of continuing the tradition of appointments.

Abu al-Ata’s killing – and Ajouri’s possible demise – doesn’t significantly hurt Islamic Jihad’s leadership or military potential. It has enough experienced commanders who can step up, and the organization is expected to announce replacements soon. The question is whether Islamic Jihad’s political leaders will use Abu al-Ata’s death for a reorganization that will prevent the group from straying from commitments like the one it gave Egypt regarding rocket fire on Israel.

Islamic Jihad militants march with their weapons to show loyalty for Ziad al-Nakhalah, October 4, 2018.Credit: Hatem Moussa,AP

Hamas doesn't want trouble

If Abu al-Ata indeed challenged the leaders and if his actions caused a rift with Egypt, the question of revenge for his killing will take a back seat to the question of the policy for calm. The Egyptians won’t be the only ones trying to persuade Islamic Jihad to contain the fallout of the killing of Abu al-Ata. Hamas doesn’t want to find itself in a broad conflict with Israel if Islamic Jihad tries to ramp up the conflict and continue the rocket fire.

If this happens, Hamas will find itself trapped in a dangerous paradox in which it has to join Islamic Jihad to avenge the death of a man who from the outset worked against coordination among the organizations and sought to undermine Hamas’ monopoly on the use of weapons.

Islamic Jihad’s bellicose rhetoric that promises harsh revenge against Israel doesn’t necessarily mean it intends to act immediately and extensively. Beyond Hamas’ show of solidarity, Hamas is working with Egypt to calm Islamic Jihad’s leaders and try to prevent, or at least reduce, the scale of the response. According to sources in Gaza, Hamas is reminding Islamic Jihad’s leaders that even Hezbollah and Iran didn’t start a war after Israel assassinated several of their leaders.

It seems that Israel’s rhetoric is also trying to help tone down Islamic Jihad’s response. There have been no cries of victory over Islamic Jihad or Hamas. The army spokesman quickly made clear that Israel isn’t returning to its policy of targeted assassinations and stressed the immediate security need and operational opportunity behind the killings without calling them revenge or long-term deterrents.

The worrisome aspect of the strikes on the two Islamic Jihad leaders is actually the timing, which gives the operation a political shading. It’s hard to accept the explanation that in one moment suitable circumstances emerged in two distant places like Damascus and Gaza. We should hope that concerns about harm to innocent civilians is what delayed the assault in Gaza, but we’d need a healthy dose of faith in coincidence to be persuaded that this was the only reason, or the main one.

The article was amneded on 13/11/2019.

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