Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought to kill Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror chief Baha Abu al-Ata after a rocket attack orchestrated by Abu al-Ata forced the premier off stage at an election rally a week before the September 17 Knesset vote, multiple Hebrew-language media outlets reported Tuesday.
Two rockets were fired at Ashdod and nearby Ashkelon from Gaza on September 10, triggering sirens that forced Netanyahu to abort a campaign speech that was being broadcast live. He told attendees to calmly leave the hall, and he was rushed off the stage to take cover, returning later to deliver the address.
The rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, but the dramatic scenes of the premier being whisked to safety were considered a significant achievement for the Gaza terror group.
Netanyahu was furious and immediately pressured senior security officials to approve Abu al-Ata’s assassination, Channels 12 and 13 reported on Tuesday.
However, commanders in the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service had reservations, saying carrying out the operation immediately could have harmed too many Palestinian civilians and would risk an all-out war before the election.
The operation was therefore postponed.
The IDF then began preparing for the targeted killing, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said it required the approval of the security cabinet, the reports said.
Ministers then discussed the plan several times over the next several weeks, and eventually approved the idea in principle on November 3.
However, in a comment that day to the media, Education Minister Rafi Peretz hinted at the plan, setting the operation back.
Peretz, of the hardline Jewish Home party, raised the idea of reviving targeted killings, a largely discontinued practice. Another minister then gave an anonymous statement to news outlets saying Peretz’s proposal was “nonsense,” likely in an attempt at damage control.
The cabinet’s unanimous decision to kill Abu al-Ata was then made last Sunday, the reports said. Since then, the IDF had been waiting for an opportune time, when he was as isolated as possible to avoid other casualties.
The targeted killing was eventually carried in the predawn hours of Tuesday morning by firing a single precision missile from an Air Force jet through the window of Abu al-Ata’s bedroom while he and his wife were sleeping, killing both. Other parts of the building, in the Shejaiya area of Gaza City, were unharmed.
Apart from the rocket launched during Netanyahu’s election rally, Abu al-Ata was also reportedly responsible for other recent rocket attacks, including one aimed at the city of Sderot in August during a major children’s festival attended by 4,000 people, and a barrage in May that caused intense fighting shortly before the Eurovision Song Contest was held in Tel Aviv.
He was also said to be behind another volley earlier this month, one of which hit a private yard in Sderot, around the same time the strike against him was given a nod by the cabinet.
Abu al-Ata was a PIJ operative since the late 1990s and became one of the organization’s top commanders.
Israel previously tried to kill him during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in 2012. His house was hit and destroyed during the 2014 Gaza war, along with those of other terror chiefs.
Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman said earlier Tuesday that he had wanted to target Abu al-Ata last year, but Netanyahu refused. Reports suggested that military chiefs at the time were also opposed to the move. Liberman stepped down from the post last November in protest of what he said was Netanyahu’s overly restrained policy on Gaza.
According to the IDF, Abu al-Ata was the true “senior commander” of the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, having ordered the group to carry out most of the significant rocket and border attacks from the Palestinian enclave in recent months and planning to carry out more.
Netanyahu on Tuesday described him as a “ticking time bomb.”
The killing was met by at least 190 rockets launched during the day by both Hamas and PIJ terror groups in Gaza. The IDF launched a campaign of retaliatory airstrikes following approximately six hours of unanswered rocket attacks on central and southern Israel from the enclave.
Dozens of the incoming projectiles were shot down by soldiers operating the Iron Dome missile defense system, representing a 90% interception rate for rockets heading toward populated areas, the army said. The remaining 10% of projectiles struck homes, businesses and roadways, causing significant damage, but relatively few injuries.
In response, the military said its fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft targeted PIJ “training compounds, including one used by the terror group’s naval commando unit, the shaft of an offensive terror tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip and a tunnel digging site in the central Gaza Strip,” as well as several underground facilities used to manufacture and store weapons, observation posts and training camps in three rounds of airstrikes.
Israel and Gaza have engaged in several sporadic rounds of violence over the last two years as the sides attempted to reach a long-term ceasefire.
Judah Ari Gross and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.