Up until yesterday, the Gaza-based Palestinian Islamic Jihad was headed by Bahaa Abu Al-Ata. Today, Abu Al-Ata is no more. Last night, in a combined Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI equivalent) Israel Defense Force operation, Abu Al-Ata was liquidated in a precision strike. His wife, who was with him was also killed. Collateral damage was minimal. Shortly after the strike on Abu Al-Ata, the home of Akram Al-Ajouri, the deputy head of the PIJ, was struck in Damascus. Two people were killed in that attack including Al-Ajouri’s bodyguard and son. The current status of Al-Ajouri is unclear. Israel has not commented on that strike, but it appears to have been coordinated with the Gaza attack and represents a powerful one-two combination.
As expected, Iran, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority condemned the Israeli attack, referring to it as a “crime.” Israeli officials described Abu Al Ata as a ‘ticking bomb,” and Gaza’s number one nuisance, who was readying for additional terrorist attacks against Israel, including indiscriminate rocket and drone strikes and possible kidnappings.
Indeed, just last week, the PIJ fired ten rockets at Israel. Eight of those were intercepted by Israel’s anti-rocket defense system Iron Dome, one landed in an open area and one struck a residential building without causing injury. The rocket attack was completely unprovoked. Some surmised that the attack was ordered by Tehran to divert attention away from anti-Iran protests paralyzing the governments of Lebanon and Iraq, which have been subsumed in whole or part by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Abu Ala-Ata was a tool of the Islamic Republic, which provided his group with nearly all of its funding and technical expertise. He was willing to perform Iran’s bidding even at the expense of clashing with Hamas, the Gaza Strip’s governing authority.
Hamas maintains a complex relationship with the PIJ. One the one hand, the two groups maintain identical extremist ideologies and often coordinate military activities with one another. They also receive funding from the same patron, the Islamic Republic. But Hamas has the added responsibility of governing Gaza and that is where the interests of the two diverge.
There are times where Hamas has an interest in maintaining quiet. Israel and Hamas have an unwritten agreement in which Israel permits the flow of Qatari cash into Gaza in exchange for quiet on the border. It’s a form of extortionist protection money but the formula had been working until it was shattered by last week’s inexplicable and unprovoked PIJ rocket attack.
Israel understandably holds Hamas responsible for everything that occurs in Gaza. Hamas can dismantle the PIJ if wanted to or at the very least, prevent the PIJ from going rogue. Instead, Hamas has adopted the position that last week’s rocket fire was unauthorized, but the group has not taken any concrete steps to deal with the issue.
Following the Israeli strike, the PIJ fired in excess of 200 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel. About one-third of those rockets were intercepted by Iron Dome. There have thus far been no Israeli fatalities, though injuries have been reported. Schools in southern and central Israel have remained closed for the time being. The southern cities of Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod have been hit. In Ashdod, dramatic footage of a rocket landing and exploding at a thoroughfare just seconds after a vehicle passed, was captured on closed circuit TV footage.
Israel has limited its counterstrikes to PIJ infrastructure, including subterranean weapons caches and rocket-launching cells. According to the Hamas-run health ministry, 10 Palestinians have been killed. Most of those killed were terrorists including those directly responsible for launching rockets.
Whether the violence will spiral into a full-scale war largely depends on Hamas and the PIJ. If these terrorist entities continue their indiscriminate rocket fire, Israel will have no choice but to embark upon a large-scale military campaign, similar to undertakings carried out in 2009 (Operation Cast Lead) and 2014 (Operation Protective Edge).
One thing is certain however; the liquidation of the PIJ’s leader demonstrates with utmost clarity to all of Israel’s enemies that if they continue their malign activities, they will end up sharing Abu Al-Ata’s fate. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Quds Force head Qassam Soleimani would be wise not to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row.