What started the latest rocket attacks from Gaza? Who was Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu al-Ata?

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Baha Abu al-Ata
Source: IDF

Israel assassinated a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror organization on Tuesday in a targeted airstrike by the Israeli air force, triggering a response of more than 200 rockets against Israel from Gaza.

Islamic Jihad is the second largest terror organization in the Gaza Strip after Hamas. Unlike Hamas, Islamic Jihad is not responsible for the civilian population, nor does it answer to Hamas. On several occasions, after Hamas reached cease-fire agreements with Israel, Islamic Jihad often broke the cease fire. Israel estimates that Islamic Jihad has around 10,000 active military members. But Israel nevertheless holds the ruling party, Hamas, responsible for everything that comes out of Gaza.

Despite being a Sunni organization, Islamic Jihad is funded and supported by Iran, which is Shia Muslim. Islamic Jihad is essentially Iran’s arm on Israel’s southern border, and, as such, has done a lot to undermine and prevent any kind of long-term cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. Taking for granted that Israel would retaliate against Hamas and not them, Islamic Jihad has launched the most attacks against Israel this past year. In fact, some estimate that Abu al-Ata was the main reason that cease fire agreements in the past didn’t hold.

In this present skirmish, Hamas has refrained from joining the fight and, so far, all rocket attacks on Israel have been carried out by Islamic Jihad. In retaliation, the Israeli air force has bombed Islamic Jihad installations and spared Hamas, signaling that they are now differentiating between the two — an unprecedented gesture towards Hamas.

Through Egyptian mediators, Israel has assured Hamas that it will not revert to a long time policy of directly targeting leaders. The killing of Baha Abu al-Ata was an exception because he was planning attacks and was considered a “ticking bomb.”

Israel decided to take out Abu al-Ata a week before the elections in September after an incoming rocket warning forced Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to flee to safety while giving a speech in Ashdod. Videos of Netanyahu being whisked off the stage by his security guards were seen worldwide and were a psychological victory for Islamic Jihad.

The current round of rockets could be over in less than a week, especially if there are no Israeli casualties. However, the situation could escalate if Hamas joins the fighting, if Jerusalem is targeted or if Israel incurs multiple casualties. Then we would likely see all-out war similar to the previous rounds in 2009, 2012 and 2014.

Neither Israel nor Hamas are interested in an escalation at this moment, but it is Iran through, Islamic Jihad, directing events at the moment. Hamas must give lip service to their struggle against Israel, but so far it hasn’t fired a single shot. Hamas has threatened to join the war should negotiations through Egypt fail.

Israel has been clear that it will respond to attacks, but is not interested in escalation.

Large parts of Israel, including the metropolitan Tel Aviv area, have been within rocket range during the past two days. Israel’s Homefront Command shut down schools and work places all the way to Tel Aviv on Tuesday. By Wednesday, only schools in the Gaza periphery towns remained closed.

The Iron Dome system has shot down over 90 percent of the rockets over Israel. So far, no civilian casualties on either side of the conflict have been reported.