For Israel, Gaza Comes Second to Iran — but That May Change

Not everything that happens in the Middle East is a worldwide Iranian plot. Israel’s list of talking points consistently gives pride of place to Tehran, but quite often causes can also be found closer to home. That would seem to be the case for the rocket volleys fired Friday evening at Sderot from the Gaza Strip, after a relatively long period of quiet.

At the time of this writing, it appears that Islamic Jihad militants in the Strip were behind the rocket strikes. While the organization does receive funds from Iran and sometimes complies with its directives, it is not a blindly obedient cell. In this case, there are clear indicators pointing to Baha Abu al-Ata, commander of the northern brigade of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Abu al-Ata’s name is suddenly on the lips of Israeli journalists, and it’s likely that he’s getting a kick out of it. There’s a good reason for his newfound fame: He was responsible for many of the rockets fired from the Strip into Israel over the past year.

Israeli defense officials view Abu al-Ata as a local bully whose star is briefly shining. He occasionally takes action against Israel in order to reinforce his position in the Strip vis-a-vis both the Hamas regime and his rivals within Islamic Jihad. He didn’t even have a specific reason for Friday’s flare-up. No one was killed by Israeli fire during the regular weekly protests along the border with Israel, nor was there an exceptional level of violence.

Israel’s southern neighbor has also taken notice of Abu al-Ata. Egyptian intelligence officials have been trying to lock him into a bear hug recently, and he was summoned to Cairo a few times as part of delegations of senior Islamic Jihad figures in the Strip. The Egyptians even freed a few dozen Palestinian Islamic Jihad activists who were jailed or detained in Egypt, in a bid to ease tensions in Gaza.

On Thursday a single rocket was fired into Israel, landing without incident in an open area. On Friday evening, though, two volleys, around 10 rockets in all, were launched at Sderot. Most of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. One rocket landed in the yard of a home, causing damage, and a few residents were treated for psychological trauma.

Rockets intercepted over the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon, 2018.Amir Cohen / Reuters

The incident placed Israel in a dilemma, forcing it to choose between retaliating against Islamic Jihad, the perpetrator, or once again laying the blame on Hamas, as the ruling authority in the Strip. In the end, Israel went with the latter option. The military hit a relatively large number of Hamas targets, but only after a delay of a few hours, giving the organization time to withdraw from its positions. Despite the delay, one Palestinian was killed and another two were wounded in the attacks. Hamas has threatened to respond, but has not yet done so.