This Elusive Jihadist Commander in Gaza Is Challenging Both Hamas and Israel

The shower of rockets on southern Israel last weekend has been credited to Baha Abu al-Ata, a household name to Gazans who is still practically unknown to Israelis. But Ata, a leading figure in Islamic Jihad, has become a dominant figure in the Strip, recently associated with the rise and fall of tensions with Israel.

Ata heads the military council of the Al-Quds Brigade, which is the military arm of the Islamic Jihad. He commands the organization's operations in northern Gaza, but also weilds great influence on the southern front.

Since Hamas is the sovereign power in Gaza, not Islamic Jihad, both Israeli and Palestinian sources suggest Ata bears no responsibility toward Palestinian civilians, giving him greater freedom to act.

Palestinian Islamic jihad militants display rockets during a military show marking the 32nd anniversary of the organisation’s founding, in the central Gaza Strip October 3, 2019. IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

>> Read more: For Israel, Gaza comes second to Iran — but that may change | Analysis

Ata has several hundred fighters under his command and an arsenal of dozens of rockets at his disposal that could be fired at Israel, Gazan sources claim. They add that he isn't a lone wolf, but works with a cohort of Islamic Jihad field commanders who have no qualms with contradicting their superiors, whether in Gaza or Beirut. However, Palestinian Authority intelligence sources told Haaretz that Israeli officials overestimate Ata's power to drive a frontal confrontation with Israel.

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Another indication of Ata's status in Gaza is his ongoing involvement in talks between Gazan leaders and Egyptian officials, including a meeting that took place two weeks ago.

Like other Jihad and Hamas leaders, Ata doesn't give interviews. He operates in the shadows and his appearances in public are rare. He behaves as though he lives under constant mortal threat. In recent days, Islamic Jihad stated that he is a freedom fighter for the Palestinian cause and issued a warning against harming him.