Baha Abu el-Atta, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander Israel assassinated in Gaza on Tuesday, knew he was a marked man. It was, in fact, the Israeli media that notified him about his status. A few months ago, Israeli reporters began describing Atta as a troublemaker, the man behind numerous rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, a major obstacle on the path towards a long-term ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas regime in Gaza.
The messages had become more and more threatening during the last couple of weeks: If Atta wouldn’t stop he would be stopped, for good. He died in his hiding place, a Gaza apartment, alongside his wife, from an Israeli air-to-ground missile, shot expertly through the window at 4:00 AM without killing any innocent civilians in the neighbouring apartments. Israeli officials claimed that Atta had been followed for weeks, and was killed only when the human defensive shield around him included just his wife.
Atta’s assassination was intended to serve a specific purpose. An Israeli cabinet minister, Gilad Erdan, gave it away, perhaps inadvertently. Atta’s removal, Erdan told Israeli public radio in an interview on Wednesday, will allow Israel to finally negotiate, indirectly, with Hamas. According to Israeli intelligence, Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s Gaza leader, is ready for a deal. His organization will cease all attacks on Israel, in return for the Israelis and Egyptians agreeing to ease the siege on the Strip and allowing money to pour in for various critical infrastructure projects. There are, however, other problems that still need to be settled, including the fate of two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, being held by Hamas in Gaza.
PIJ is Hamas’ junior partner in Gaza. The smaller organization doesn’t take part in governing the Strip, but at times of military tensions with Israel, it usually co-ordinates its actions with Hamas. Atta has been described as a local goon, who acquired a certain notoriety for his willingness to fight the Israelis, sometimes even recklessly. When Israel decided to kill him, it is doubtful whether Sinwar shed a tear for his old comrade in arms. Hamas paid customary lip service to the fallen martyr, but specifically avoided any friction with Israel. Over 48 hours, until a ceasefire was achieved on Thursday morning, 34 Palestinians died from Israeli airstrikes on the Strip. Gaza retaliated by launching more than 400 rockets on Southern and Central Israel. Several Israeli residents in the southern towns were injured. Yet, Hamas didn’t fire a single rocket. This is extremely significant, since Hamas’s behaviour suggests a change in the organization’s strategy. It is willing to risk its leading ideological status as the purveyor of Muquaama, armed resistance to Israel, to finally begin to improve the miserable living conditions in Gaza.
Israel, too, has changed its policy. During the last few years, whenever PIJ or other small independent groups fired rockets, Israel would retaliate, but not against them. It would strike Hamas military positions, claiming the organization had an over-riding responsibility for maintaining calm in Gaza, being its de-facto ruler. Not this time. All targets hit this week were PIJ positions and weapons depots. The IDF made a point of saying that it had no beef with Hamas and expected the bigger Palestinian organization to stick to the ceasefire. By Thursday morning, even the junior partners had had enough. After losing about 25 of its men in Israeli strikes, and under aggressive pressure from Egyptian Intelligence, calm was restored along the Gaza border. PIJ will now be left to lick its wounds, pick a successor to Atta (described postmortem by the Israelis as the commander of the organization’s military wing in the Strip) and try to figure out how the IDF succeeded in spotting and killing the fallen commander.
Hamas will have bigger fish to fry – mainly, putting the deal together – but it will also have to carefully watch public reaction in Gaza. There are a few things more detrimental to a Palestinian political movement than being called out as a collaborator with Israel. This, after all, was Hamas’s main argument against the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
On the Israeli side, there are political ramifications. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is amid a dramatic power-struggle, trying to maintain control of his job, despite three different corruption indictments about to be served against him by the country’s Attorney General. As usual, the PM is far ahead of the curve. While Netanyahu’s main rival, the centrist party Blue and White had been busy seeking a far-fetched solution after another un-decided election (a minority coalition supported from the outside by an Arab-Israeli leftist party), the PM practically pulled the rug from under their feet. He presented the Arab-Israeli party as an illegitimate partner, because of its reservations about the military operation in Gaza. Now, more pressure will be put on BlueandWhite chairman, Benny Gantz, to join a national unity government, led by Netanyahu, under the PM’s terms.