Most Gazans weren’t familiar with the name Bahaa Abu Al-Ata until Israel talked him up as the mastermind behind occasional Islamic Jihad projectile attacks on Israel. His type of actions were the target of general disapproval, disrupting as they did the cease-fire understandings between Hamas and Israel.
That all changed when Israel assassinated him early Tuesday, along with his wife, in the densely populated neighborhood of Shejaiya, during that same cease-fire.
Now al-Ata is a martyr, a hero; he’s been transformed in his death at Israel’s hands into an icon of Palestinian resistance. His rocket attacks are now reframed as a necessary corrective against an "enemy that never honors cease-fire agreements."
Although Netanyahu called Al-Ata "a ticking bomb," and Benny Gantz claimed the decision was appropriate "both politically and operationally," the act and timing of Israel's killing of an Islamic Jihad commander were fundamentally wrong, reprehensible and carelessly put civilian lives on both sides in danger.
The timing is catastrophic, if not malevolent; it constitutes a full-scale assault on the last stages of intra-Palestinian efforts to hold long-awaited, and hopefully transparent and democratic, national elections for the first time in 13 years, a pathway to restoring unity between the West Bank and Gaza.
Not only that: Israel is knowingly reviving a failed, irresponsible policy of assassination – which in all past cases have only revived support for violence and jihadist militarism, and produced no positive change – is entirely cynical.
Israel has countless alternatives to the use of brute force, but that its prime minister, mired in a fight for his own political survival, ordered the hit "to serve his own purposes…is inevitable and unavoidable."
Israel could have simply complied with its pledge to maintain the cease-fire, and stop using live fire against unarmed Gazan protesters. Those actions would undermine Islamic Jihad's proclaimed motive for its rocket retaliations.
Israel could've also genuinely eased the Gaza blockade further, as a reward for the long period of calm that Hamas had maintained until now. That would have disincentivized armed actions against Israel and rendered violence an act of betrayal, rather than heroism - obstructing change for the better for the people of Gaza.
But Israel's killing of someone it called a "troublemaker" has achieved exactly the opposite result.
Islamic Jihad’s actions - a position that was peripheral, outcast - is now mainstream: calls for an "earthshaking retaliation" are coming from far and wide. Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s actions are now legitimated by Israel’s provocation – and are backed, at least in words, by virtually all other armed factions in Gaza.
The chance to restore calm is dissipating. Buoyed by its newfound popularity, Islamic Jihad would see complying with international mediation so soon after Israel's targeted killing as surrender. That’s why it’s dismissed international mediation at this stage - until it gets sufficient revenge first.
But even conflict is politics by other means, and in politics, nothing is set in stone and de-escalation remains possible. But it requires Israeli politicians to choose reason over electoral expedience.
Hamas has been acting responsibly during this outbreak of violence. It refrained from joining the retaliation camp against Israel, despite pro-forma expressing its sympathy towards Islamic Jihad. However, as Israel's pounding of Gaza not only continues but increases in severity, as more bodies pile up at Gaza’s hospitals, popular pressure will grow on Hamas until it won't be able to hold the middle ground.
Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum stated that calculus explicitly, saying; "If the occupation goes further with its crimes, [Hamas'] resistance will not stand idly by." But simultaneously, he called for a cease-fire: "We don't mind any party intervening to curb the Israeli aggression."
At the same time, Islamic Jihad doesn’t want to be seen as the Palestinian unity wrecker. Despite continued rocket fire and the rhetoric of harsh revenge, Islamic Jihad is also leaning towards containing the situation, so that it’s not solely blamed for halting progress in election talks. Its bombast is aimed at placating its angry base. Even talk like "we are going to war" with Israel can be walked back.
For instance, Islamic Jihad possesses advance projectiles with explosive warheads – still unguided – that could inflict far larger damage on Israeli targets, yet it so far chose to launch ordinary projectiles with minimal warheads that have a long range but inflict minimal damage.
It's now entirely up to Netanyahu's cabinet: will it escalate towards war, further pounding Gaza and expanding its target bank, until Hamas is forced to join? Or will Israel de-escalate the situation, before more lives are lost?
Israel's current tactic - responding to fire with much greater fire - is the basic recipe for disaster. It would inevitably spark a fourth war, whose consequences would be irrevocable.
The longer Israel continues its strikes, the closer the situation is to hitting a point of no return. If Israel resumes its tactic of targeting civilian residential compounds in Gaza – as it did in the last escalation in August 2018 to pressure Hamas – it would trigger an immediate backlash by Hamas, who will feel bound to demonstrate its capacity and willingness to defend civilians.
And it’s not hard to imagine how disastrous the repercussions would be of Israel’s latest threat: to take out Islamic Jihad’s leader, Ziad Nakhala, who resides in Damascus.
To prevent another disastrous war that neither side wants, Israel should exercise maximum restraint regarding Islamic Jihad’s retaliation campaign. It should return to the ceasefire.
And there is a recent precedent: this is exactly the policy Israel followed in regard to Hezbollah in August. Israel assassinated two of its commanders in Syria, Hezbollah fired rockets into northern Israel in response, but there was no further escalation.
Israel could also immediately announce a unilateral cease-fire – as it did during the 2008 Operation Cast Lead to avoid disturbing Obama's inauguration – and pledge more meaningful and dramatic easing of its decade-long blockade - should the Gazan side reciprocate.
After every escalation between Gaza and Israel, another Bahaa Abu Al-Ata emerges from the ruins. There is only one way to prevent successive, ever more militant, jihadists gaining undeserved prominence: to lift Gaza's siege and give its people an opportunity to live, to actually live rather than barely survive.
Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights. Twitter: @muhammadshehad2
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