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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

A Double Blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)

Filed under: Hamas, Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Palestinians, Terrorism

A Double Blow to Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)
Palestinian Islamic Jihad memorial poster for commander Baha Abu al-Ata. The poster declares, “We have not yet begun.”
  • Israel targeted Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) military leader Baha Abu al-Ata in Gaza City in the early morning of November 12, 2019. Abu al-Ata was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks, including launching rockets at Israel. At the same time, Israel also attacked a second senior PIJ leader in Damascus.
  • In response, Islamic Jihad launched a barrage of rockets against Israel, and it is not yet clear whether this is another round of limited fighting or the beginning of an extensive military operation.

Israel landed a double blow against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Iran’s proxy in the Gaza Strip, through simultaneous air operations on two fronts. The Israeli Air Force targeted a senior military leader of Islamic Jihad, Baha Abu al-Ata, in Gaza City. At the same time, Israel attacked the Damascus home of Akram al-Ajouri, who headed the PIJ Military Council and served as the right-hand man to Ziad Nakhla, the Secretary-General of PIJ, who hides out in Hizbullah’s Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut.

Akram al-Ajouri was reportedly injured in the attack in Damascus, and his son killed.

Hamas condemned the killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, and reports from Gaza say that PIJ and Hamas leaders are in hiding.

Various Palestinian factions throughout the Gaza Strip are leveling threats that “the enemy will pay a heavy price.”

In response, the Islamic Jihad launched an attack of scores of rockets at Israel. Ziad Nakhala, the PIJ leader, warned: “We are going to war. Netanyahu has crossed all the red lines in killing Al-Quds Brigades Commander Baha Abu al-Ata.”

In an attempt to calm the security situation, an IDF spokesman announced that Israel has not renewed its policy of targeted killing.

Egyptian intelligence opened talks with Israel, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip in an attempt to stop the escalation.

Who Was Abu Al-Ata?

The targeting of Baha Abu al-Ata, who was responsible for the northern sector of the Islamic Jihad’s military wing, is an important move in restraining the PIJ’s opposition to the Israeli-Hamas ceasefire that was reached with the help of Egypt.

Abu al-Ata challenged the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip, who had been afraid to confront him, and often had disagreements with Ziad Nakhala, the leader of Islamic Jihad, who leads the continuing “resistance” in the Gaza Strip.

Ziad Nakhala and Iran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds brigade.

Nakhala maintains a direct relationship with General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.

Israel considered Baha Abu al-Ata as a “ticking time bomb,” ready to launch attacks. In the past, Israel tried to target him during Operation Pillar of Defense (2012), and his house was destroyed during Operation Protective Edge (2014).

In recent days, Baha Abu al-Ata promoted further attacks against Israel, with various plots against Israeli citizens and IDF soldiers: he deployed squads for infiltration and sniper attacks, launched drones, and prepared rockets of various ranges.

Baha Abu al-Ata was responsible for most of the rocket attacks in the past year from the Gaza Strip, including firing at the Sderot Music Festival and the rocket barrage at Israel earlier in November. He is also believed to be responsible for firing at Ashdod during the recent elections when Prime Minister Netanyahu was speaking to a Likud election conference.

A few weeks ago, Abu al-Ata visited Egypt together with PIJ leader Ziad Nakhala for talks with Egyptian intelligence chiefs about continuing the relative calm with Israel.

The Egyptians paid tribute to PIJ and released dozens of detainees from Egyptian prison in the hopes that this would encourage the organization’s leaders to maintain the calm.

Listening to His Iranian Master’s Voice

However, Islamic Jihad only obeys Iranian instructions, and earlier in November, Islamic Jihad launched a barrage of rockets at Ashdod and other cities near Gaza. Baha Abu al-Ata was responsible.

PIJ leadership with Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran
PIJ leadership, led by Ziad Nakhlah, with Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei in Tehran. Notice the men removed their shoes in Khamenei’s presence.

Following Israeli reports that Abu al-Ata was responsible for the rocket attacks, he expected to be killed, and he went underground and hid. When he came out of hiding, he surrounded himself with women and children to serve as human shields. Israel waited for the appropriate moment and then targeted him at his home in the Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza.

It is still unclear whether the military actions of November 12 will mean another round of fighting that will last a few days or if it will be the beginning of a wider military operation. Israel is responding cautiously to the rocket fire in an attempt to keep Hamas, the strongest organization in Gaza, out of the conflict to avoid unnecessary escalation.

However, Islamic Jihad leader Ziad Nakhala announced that the Israeli action meant war because Israel crossed Islamic Jihad’s red lines.

Israel is attempting to limit the military confrontation to the Islamic Jihad front only but doesn’t decide alone. Hamas also receives instructions from Iran and follows the mood on the Gaza street. As a co-member with PIJ on the Joint Gaza Military Front, Hamas may also join in the rocket fire toward Israel.

Israel estimates that Hamas will be forced to join in the rocket fire, even though Hamas does not want a widespread military confrontation with Israel. With intense pressure coming from the Gazan street, Hamas may attempt a measured response. The question of whether this will become an extensive military confrontation will also depend on Israel’s response to the rocket fire.