Baha Abu al-Ata: Who was the secretive Islamic Jihad leader assassinated by Israel?

Baha Abu al-Ata: Who was the secretive Islamic Jihad leader assassinated by Israel?
The Gaza military commander killed in an Israeli airstrike kept a low profile, but what is known about Baha Abu al-Ata, and why did Israel want him dead?
3 min read
12 November, 2019
Israel claims Baha Abu al-Ata was a 'ticking time bomb' [Getty]
Following an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza home of a Palestinian militant leader, a rapidly escalating exchange of threats and retaliatory attacks brings the Israeli military and Palestinian factions closer to a full-blown and devastating conflict than they have been since 2014.

But who was the commander assassinated in the strike, and why did Israel want him dead so badly?

Despite being lesser known in Israel and the international sphere, Baha Abu al-Ata was a household name in the Gaza Strip, where he was killed along with his wife in the bombing of his home in the Shujaiya district in the northern end of the enclave.

Expanding military influence 

A shadowy yet powerful figure, Ata headed the military council and commanded the northern brigades of the al-Quds forces, the armed wing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), answering to  Beirut-based Ziad al-Nakhala, the Secretary-General of the group's political arm.

PIJ is a self-proclaimed jihadist group which operates in the Gaza Strip, as well as in parts of the West Bank, alongside Hamas.

Thought to be largely funded by Iran and to a lesser degree Syria, it states its aims as destroying the state of Israel and establishing a sovereign Islamic state of Palestine.

Since Hamas is the sovereign authority in the enclave, and not Islamic Jihad, observers point out that al-Ata had less responsibility towards Palestinian citizens and therefore had more freedom in his military operations.

Ata is said to have had command over several hundred fighters, as well as dozens of rockets that could be fired into Israel on his orders.

Political sway

Beyond his military role, Ata also held key political sway, as demonstrated in his involvement in talks between Gaza's leaders and Egyptian officials in October, negotiating the release of 80 members of PIJ members imprisoned in Egypt.

Despite his considerable influence, Ata kept a low profile, did not give interviews and made rare public appearances, as most PIJ and Hamas commanders do.

Ticking time bomb?

Although his influence is thought to have expanded in recent years, Ata has survived at least two assassination attempts previously, during Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 as well as in the middle of the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, but he was not at home when the airstrike hit his home.

Israel maintains that Ata was behind "most" of the group's activity, including a barrage of rockets into southern Israel last weekend, as well as a string of drone and sniper attacks, and infiltration attempts into its territory. 

It called him a "ticking time bomb", claiming he was organising "imminent" further attacks.

Israel was also concerned Ata had close ties with Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards.

Palestinian authorities say Israel overestimated al-Ata's influence in the group and his ability to charge a new conflict with its neighbour.

However, Arab sources point out he had an active role developing the group's missile systems and expanding its military capabilities.

In retaliation for his death, Palestinian militants fired over 70 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza to southern Israel on Tuesday morning, attributing all blame to Israel and threatening to launch war.

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