Before dawn on Tuesday, Israel struck an apartment building in Gaza where Baha Abu al-Ata, Islamic Jihad’s senior commander in the territory, was sleeping, successfully killing him. The strike was unusual, coming amidst a period of relative quiet in Gaza and during an Israeli moratorium on targeted assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders. Islamic Jihad’s response was both quick and predictable, and Israelis across southern Israel have spent the past three days sheltering from rocket fire. Abu al-Ata was a high value target for Israel, as the IDF had determined that he was the prime mover behind Islamic Jihad’s refusal to lower the temperature in Gaza, in contrast to the relatively more responsible behavior that Israel associates with Hamas. But the operation against Abu al-Ata was not solely about him, and should be read as a response to the rapidly changing regional environment, a message to other actors, and a test of a working theory about Hamas’s modus operandi.
A confluence of events – largely driven by the United States – have emboldened Iranian militarism throughout the region, which can be seen in Iran resuming uranium enrichment at Fordow to the strike on Saudi oil and natural gas facilities to taking potshots at Israeli aircraft in Syria. More than any other Iranian adversary, the Israeli government has naturally been concerned about Iran’s aggressive posture, and Israel needs to take action that will not only disrupt Iran but will send a message of deterrence. For the past two years, Israel’s mechanism for doing this has been repeated strikes on Iranian weapons and proxies in Syria, but that avenue has recently become more complicated. Not only does it risk a rupture with Russia, Israel appears to have calculated that it may risk a direct conflict with Iran. When Hizballah fired anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli drone last week and Israel let the incident go without destroying the launchers, it was the clearest sign that the rules of the game in Syria have changed to Israel’s detriment.
Killing Abu al-Ata is one way for Israel to deal with the new regional balance outside of the Syrian theater. Islamic Jihad is Iran’s closest proxy in Gaza, and it is financed, armed, and directed by the Islamic Republic. Its Iranian sponsorship explains why despite its relative paucity in size compared to Hamas, it is better funded and by most estimates controls a rocket arsenal of equal numbers. Taking out its military commander in Gaza is the closest Israel can come to hitting Iran directly, and while Islamic Jihad does not have the ability to threaten Israel in the same manner as Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon, targeting Abu al-Ata is the best move available to Israel if it wants to exercise greater caution in Syria. Aside from potentially making southern Israel a bit quieter going forward, this was intended to give Iran pause.
It was also a message aimed squarely at Hizballah. While the impact of rockets from Gaza has thankfully been reduced over time, the impact of Hizballah’s arsenal of guided rockets and missiles is one that Israel is less easily equipped to handle. For years, the Israeli security establishment’s most proximate concern has been keeping a war with Hizballah in the north at bay. The combination of increasing Iranian control and presence in Syria, the winding down of the Syrian conflict, and a generally emboldened Iran has made the risk of that war actually breaking out higher than in the past. Hizballah fire at the Israeli drone last week is a bad sign, and Israel’s ability to take out Abu al-Ata concurrently with a strike in Damascus for which nobody has claimed responsibility but that killed another Islamic Jihad commander there is an effort to make Hassan Nasrallah think twice before escalating with Israel. Nasrallah and other Hizballah leaders have literally been living underground for over a decade in fear of Israeli targeted assassinations, and this recent and striking example of Israeli capabilities is meant to give them an extra reminder of that fact.
Finally, the strike on Islamic Jihad was intended to signal and test Hamas. As of this writing, Israel has refrained from hitting any Hamas targets in Gaza, and Hamas has refrained from firing any of its rockets at Israel in response to Abu al-Ata’s killing. Israel wants to keep Hamas out of this, and is being very deliberate in its intention of eroding Islamic Jihad’s capabilities while leaving Hamas’s untouched. The longer the back and forth between Israel and Islamic Jihad goes on, the more difficult it becomes for Hamas not to jump in due to political pressure, but both Israel and Hamas appear to be doing their utmost best to avoid that eventuality. The open secret inside of Israel and Gaza is that Israel wants Hamas to remain in power and maintain the understandings between them, which has allowed the situation in Gaza to slightly improve while keeping incendiary balloons and kites out of southern Israeli communities. In the past, Israel has hit Hamas targets in response to rockets from Gaza irrespective of which entity has done the firing, on the theory that Hamas is the sovereign in Gaza and is responsible for everything that happens there. This time, Israel is consciously doing things differently and it is not coincidental.
Beyond trying to keep Hamas untouched and out of the fighting, killing Abu al-Ata is also going to test a theory that IDF intelligence has been floating, which is that Islamic Jihad has been going rogue behind Hamas’s back. During the last few rounds of rocket fire from Gaza, Israeli officials have told reporters that Hamas is trying to constrain Islamic Jihad but that the organization is operating beyond Hamas’s control. Even more recently, Abu al-Ata has been the person fingered for Islamic Jihad’s allegedly rogue and uncontrollable actions that risk the delicate balance between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. For many looking at Hamas and Islamic Jihad’s alignment on goals and tactics, not to mention the joint operations center that they run in tandem, the notion that Islamic Jihad is acting independently and without Hamas’s knowledge or tacit assent is farcical. Now that Abu al-Ata is out of the way, this theory will be tested in a more robust fashion. If Hamas indeed continues to refrain from responding to Israeli actions in Gaza targeting Islamic Jihad, it will go toward confirming the theory of daylight between the two groups, and will drive Israeli assumptions about Gaza going forward in an even more impactful manner.