Hamas let PIJ terror chief act with impunity; now it needs to control the flames

Israel repeatedly urged Gaza’s rulers to stop Baha Abu al-Ata, but was ignored. Hamas was betting Israel wouldn’t dare eliminate him and risk a new conflict. It was wrong

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata (IDF Spokesperson)
Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata (IDF Spokesperson)

Responsibility for the IDF’s elimination of Baha Abu al-Ata, the commander of the Islamic Jihad terror group’s military wing, lies entirely with one group: Hamas.

Gaza’s Hamas rulers were ostensibly completely uninvolved in the relentless confrontation mounted by Abu al-Ata and his colleagues against Israel. But its persistent refusal to intervene, its determined ignoring of Israel’s warnings regarding Abu al-Ata’s central role in firing rockets at Israel and planning terror attacks, eventually led to an inevitable outcome: The Gaza-based serial troublemaker was eliminated along with his wife at their home in Shejaiya in an Israeli strike early on Tuesday morning.

The death of Abu al-Ata was only a matter of time. The writing was on the wall. The man was provoking Israel, Hamas and Egypt. He worked time and again to orchestrate attacks, succeeded in some cases, and was involved in planning even more ambitious attacks that were thwarted. And that is quite apart from the rocket fire.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi at a press conference after the IDF eliminated Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata, prompting a huge escalation in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, at the Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv, on November 12, 2019. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Israel widely publicized photographs of him, but that only bolstered his image as a local hero. He was summoned to Cairo, but paid no heed to understandings with Egypt — even though Egyptian intelligence had released from its jails dozens of Islamic Jihad activists, after traveling from Gaza to Iran for training, were heading back to the Strip.

He didn’t even take orders from Iran. The man had his own agenda, which was intended to advance his status inside Islamic Jihad and to boost his organization relative to Hamas.

It’s reasonable to assume that Gaza’s printing presses already had posters ready with photographs of Abu al-Ata and the familiar text announcing his death as a “martyr.”

Relatives of Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu Al-Ata mourn during his funeral in Gaza City on November 12, 2019.(SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Hamas steadfastly refused to intervene in his actions, enabling him to repeatedly orchestrate rocket fire into Israel — rocket fire that, on some occasions, did not have even the most spurious of pretexts.

Directly and indirectly — via publications in various media outlets; messages conveyed by Egyptian intelligence; and warnings via international mediators — Israel repeatedly urged Hamas to take action. But Hamas’s working assumption, and that of its leader Yahya Sinwar, was that Israel in its current situation was so concerned by the prospect of escalation that it would refrain, for the time being at least, from a targeted strike.

It was convenient for Hamas to ignore Abu al-Ata’s activities, furthermore, because the organization did not want to be portrayed as acting against the “resistance” or against its central competitor in Gaza — Islamic Jihad.

Now that Abu al-Ata has been eliminated, Hamas faces an acute dilemma. It does not want a major escalation with Israel, given that the situation in Gaza has been getting a bit better: The electricity supply has improved. The Rafah border crossing has been opened to a major influx of trade from Egypt. And Hamas’s image with the Palestinian public is improving, relative to the weakening Fatah. By means of its ongoing demonstrations, riots and confrontations with Israel at the border, Hamas has been able to achieve those slightly eased Gaza conditions where the Palestinian Authority has failed time and again.

The problem is that Islamic Jihad is most emphatically bent on responding — not only to the elimination of Abu al-Ata in Gaza but also to Tuesday’s other action, in Damascus, namely the strike on the home of another Islamic Jihad leader, Akram Ajouri. Ajouri survived, but his son was killed.

If Hamas tries to stop Islamic Jihad at this stage, before the region gets hotter still, it will be accused of collaborating with Israel. But if it allows Islamic Jihad to run wild with massive rocket fire, that is likely to lead to a harsh Israeli response, which in turn will draw in Hamas. And very quickly, Hamas and Israel will find themselves entering a major round of conflict of the kind last seen in the summer of 2014.

Israeli firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a factory in Sderot, caused by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, November 12, 2019. (Flash90)

The rocket fire at central Israel in the course of Tuesday, needless to say, is no positive signal. It indicates that, for now at least, Hamas is allowing Islamic Jihad to fire. The question is when will Hamas be wise enough to rein the violence in. Doubtless the traditional negotiators — UN emissary Nikolay Mladenov, Qatar’s Muhammad al-Amadi, and of course Egyptian intelligence — will deepen their efforts to calm things down, looking to Hamas to be the responsible Gaza adult stopping the escalation.

But with incidents such as this, it’s always easy to understand how things start, and far harder to see how they can end.

Most Popular
read more: