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.
– Haaretz Weekly 12/11
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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.
A man looks at the damage to a house in Sderot, Israel, after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza Strip, November 12, 2019.Tsafrir Abayov,AP
Netanyahu, 'Mr. Security,' taken off stage at campaign rally following Gaza rocket attackhttps://t.co/gcTHPFCxV1 pic.twitter.com/qSGkYvEwOQ
— Haaretz.com (@haaretzcom) September 10, 2019
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.