Will Ceasefire Quench Palestinian Terrorists’ Lust for Revenge?
Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Gaza’s second largest armed faction, sustained a painful surprise blow on Tuesday when the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out a surgical strike on its local Gazan terror chief, Baha Abu al-Ata.
Despite his title of Northern Gaza brigade commander, al-Ata was in fact the de facto head of PIJ in Gaza, and he led a series of attacks on Israelis over the last several months, according to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
Al-Ata was behind unprovoked attacks such as the May rocket a barrage on southern Israeli civilians that set off a round of combat just before Israel’s Memorial Day in early May, as well as the August 25 rocket barrage on the southern Israeli city of Sderot, during a music festival, sending terrified families fleeing for cover.
“He didn’t stop there. He wanted to conduct imminent future attacks,” Lt. Gen. Jonathan Conricus, IDF spokesperson to the international press, said by conference call on Tuesday. According to Israeli intelligence alerts, al-Ata was preparing IED, rocket and sniper attacks against Israel in the immediate future.
Unlike Hamas, which is both a terror faction and a governing authority, responsible for ruling over two million people, the Iranian-backed PIJ has no interest in seeking tactical ceasefires with Israel, so that Gaza’s disastrous economic conditions can improve.
While Hamas fears a popular revolt by disgruntled Palestinians who lack any clear economic future, PIJ faces no such concern, and as part of his internal rivalry with Hamas, al-Ata refused to recognize Hamas efforts to reach a longer-term truce arrangement with Israel, or to cooperate with Egyptian mediation efforts.
Given that reality, and information about pending attacks, the IDF received approval from the security cabinet, before spending a week searching for an opportune moment to strike al-Ata. He tried to exploit Israel’s attempts to avoid hitting noncombatants, and surrounded himself with human shields most of the time.
Finally, at 4 a.m. on Tuesday, a joint Shin Bet intelligence agency and IAF operation saw a fighter jet fire a precision missile that destroyed only the floor on which al-Ata was sleeping, in northern Gaza’s Shejaiya neighborhood, where he was born and raised. The missile strike killed the terror chief and his wife.
Prior to the strike, Israel tried to send warnings, hoping to dissuade PIJ from carrying out its dangerous plans. “We tried to message and communicate to Baha and his superiors that Israel was aware of his intentions to conduct further attacks, and that consequences would follow,” Conricus said.
Al-Ata’s official higher-up in the chain of PIJ’s command is Ziad Al-Nakhleh, the overseas secretary-general. He divides his time between Beirut, Damascus, and Iran, where he frequently huddles with the Islamic Republic’s Quds Force to plot future attacks against Israel.
Meanwhile, according to international media reports, at just about the same time as the Gaza air strike on Tuesday morning, a missile strike targeted Al-Nakhleh’s deputy, Akram Al-Ajouri, in the Syrian capital of Damascus. The reports said Al-Ajouri survived the strike, but that his son was killed.
The IDF did not comment about the report, though PIJ accused Israel of the Damascus attack, and linked it to the assassination.
According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, Al-Ajouri “was head of the PIJ’s ‘external’ military department. He was also in charge of the organization’s finances. Al-Ajouri is close to Iran and has close relations with Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, and with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.”
Meanwhile, the IDF sought to manage the latest Gaza conflict in a manner that would prevent it from deteriorating, or pulling in Hamas. Israel was aware that major rocket fire would follow the strike on al-Ata, and sure enough, PIJ has fired more than 450 rockets at Israeli civilians since then.
More than 90 percent of the projectiles heading into populated areas were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system. The Israeli Air Force began two days of strikes aimed at surpressing the PIJ’s rocket fire, targeting rocket launch crews as well as an anti-tank firing squad before they could fire. The IDF reported 20 terrorist casualties in Gaza by Wednesday night. Media reports said that a Gazan civilian and his two sons were also among the dead.
“We say categorically that we make very many efforts that the casualties will be terrorists,” Conricus said Wednesday.
Hamas’ decision to refrain from joining the combat as it raged for 50 hours is a telling reflection of its dilemma, and of Hamas’ desire to cooperate with Egyptian-led mediation efforts to reach a longer-term arrangement. That arrangement now has some chance of being realized following the removal of al-Ata from the Gazan arena.
A ceasefire went into effect Thursday. At the end of the fighting, PIJ fired 450 rockets over in 50 hours, and the IDF killed around 25 confirmed PIJ operatives, according Israeli figures. It’s unclear if the ceasefire will hold.
The IDF stressed that it made major efforts to greatly limit harm to non-combatants. PIJ commanders used their private homes to store weapons and act as command and control weapons, and often used their own family members as human shields. The homes constitute military targets, because they are used for military activities, Conricus told journalists on Thursday morning.
After the fighting ended, initial IDF assessments are that Israel dealt a significant blow to PIJ, and that with al-Ata’s removal and subsequent damage to PIJ targets, the IDF has improved and stabilized the security situation for the time being. But that remains to be seen.
Yaakov Lappin is a military and strategic affairs correspondent. He also conducts research and analysis for defense think tanks, and is the military correspondent for JNS. His book, The Virtual Caliphate, explores the online jihadist presence.
A version of this article was originally published by The Investigative Project on Terrorism.