Shahaf Rabi
Former Founding Director of ICSTK

Excellent Statecraft? The Targeted Killing of Baha Abu al-Ata

A year has passed since Israel killed Baha Abu al-Ata, the commander of the entire northern Gaza Strip sector forces of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (hereinafter, PIJ) military wing. He was a rogue actor which disrupted the plans of Israel and Hamas to have an extended lull. Israel hoped that by killing Baha, it would be easier to maintain a long-term ceasefire. In this short piece I assess what seemed to have been the impact of the operation and the extent to which Israel managed to promote its interests by killing Baha Abu al-Ata.

The escalation which led to the last full-scale Gaza Strip war (summer of 2014, Protective Edge) was rapid, and believed unintended by neither Israel nor Hamas. There was a relative calm for years afterwards.

In March 2018, Hamas began to compromise it with riots and other disruptive measures in the Gaza-Israel border area. Hamas negotiated better terms for the extension of the ceasefire by increasing the flames while judiciously avoiding war.

However, Baha Abu al-Ata, the most prominent Gaza Strip commander of the PIJ’s military wing forces, was committed to violence. For instance, shortly prior to the Hamas-Israel six months ceasefire agreement, he caused the short of war escalation in early May 2019, which consisted of Gazan terrorists firing nearly 700 rockets and mortars in 48 hours.

Baha continued to order every now and then sniper attacks and projectile fire. It appeared Ziad al-Nakhala, the PIJ’s leader, failed to restrain him.

Israel and Hamas feared spiraling into another unwanted war.

Israel understood that Hamas, too, wished to maintain a stable and prolonged ceasefire. Hamas kept the rest of the Gazan militant groups in check. However, Hamas’ own political calculations made Abu al-Ata abnormally immune to attempts by Hamas to confine him. Hamas simply refused to truly confront him.

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And so enter Israel, with its rich targeted killing history.

It was 4:00 A.M. on November 12, 2019 when Israel conducted a textbook targeted killing operation in Shujaiya neighborhood, Gaza City, Gaza Strip. The object of the attack, Baha Abu al-Ata, was killed in the airstrike.

The killing removed a true troublemaker off the board. It sparked an escalation right after, but the political logic behind this action was that it would increase the prospects of establishing a long-term ceasefire afterwards. As such, the operation not only seemed to be reasonable – it had the theoretical potential to prove itself as excellent statecraft. But did it?

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Baha Abu al-Ata was certainly a key PIJ leadership figure. Yet leadership decapitation researchers concentrate on the termination of targeted groups. Other studies examine the implications and effectiveness of extended targeted killing campaigns in various forms and terms. So none of them is particularly useful in order to gain unique insights into his killing, especially because Israel repeatedly emphasized that it did not renew its targeted killing policy. Israel called to resume the ceasefire.

According to the excellent article of Charles Kirchofer: “There is potential to use targeted killings to coerce an opponent into accepting a ceasefire.” But not as a tool of deterrence as much as a method to compel and henceforth motivate the militant leadership to preserve the ceasefire. Baha ignited the spikes of violence in what would otherwise had been a period of calm. It was essentially the “new status quo” he was creating for months. The targeted killing sought to frustrate that.

Kirchofer also noted that in the past, “[w]hen Israel carried out killings at a time when Hamas viewed itself as exercising restraint or still adhering to a ceasefire, this provocative move encouraged Hamas to abandon the ceasefire and retaliate. There was no incentive for Hamas to maintain a ceasefire when its most important leaders were being killed regardless.”

Indeed, if Israel would’ve targeted the Hamas leadership before or during that round, then it would’ve likely been counterproductive. But in the premeditated action of Israel, and meticulous management of the hostilities, Hamas remained out of that round of violence. The IDF was wise to carefully target only PIJ militants – avoiding Hamas and other militants.

The PIJ agreed to a ceasefire after somewhat over 48 hours of fighting all alone, by itself.

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The critical point here to determine whether Israel’s actions showcased admirable statecraft was to wait and see if a stable and prolonged ceasefire followed after Israel supposedly removed the obstacle, Baha Abu al Ata, to sustain one.

The ceasefire did not even last one month. On November 26, 2019, a person was already wounded in Sderot due to a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip.

In fact, the Shabak published reports of various terrorist activities every month stemming from the Gaza Strip – ranging from projectile fire to snipers, IEDs, arson balloons, and so on.

Compiled table based on the Shabak’s monthly reports (Shahaf Rabi)

Between November 2019 and October 2020, April was the only month in which no rockets and no mortars were fired.

Compiled table based on the Shabak’s monthly reports (Shahaf Rabi)

It therefore appears safe to conclude that the targeted killing of Baha Abu al Ata produced no deterrent effect for neither the short term nor the long term. Israel did not get the lull it was interested in.

Yet there is more to it.

Trump announced his deal of the century plan on January 28, 2020. Hamas eased up its policy of enforcing the ceasefire. Thus, Gazan terrorists expressed their discontent through violence.

In continuing to consider how the targeted killing influenced the PIJ, it is also noteworthy that no organization claimed responsibility for the firing of the rockets and mortars. Smaller groups are likely to be more worried of Hamas while the PIJ is more concerned of Israel. Still, rockets were fired.

After Israel reinstated sanctions, by mid-February, the two parties agreed once more to renew the lull. But it did not last for long.

Overall, the PIJ’s policy did not seem to change. It was not so different in terms of style in comparison to that committed under the direction of Baha Abu al-Ata. That is, PIJ terrorists continued to mainly engage IDF soldiers along the Gaza-Israel border fence. They planted all sorts of IEDs as well as targeted sniper fire at soldiers.

On 23 February, two PIJ terrorists were planting IEDs near the border. IDF soldiers fired on them, killing one, injuring the other.

In what I personally consider as a suboptimal decision, IDF D9 bulldozers were dispatched across the border to obtain the body of the killed militant. Such bodies are usually picked up during the dead of night, when dark. This time it happened while the sun was already up. Gazans started video recording the IDF’s bulldozer attempting time and time again to pick the corpse up. At times, it had the killed militant hanging on it and then dropped down. It was not the public relations Israel needs and was not worth it for the corpse of some nobody.

More importantly, it was actually humiliating to the PIJ. They felt compelled to respond to after the videos spread all over the internet.

This caused the tenth PIJ escalation round. The PIJ launched some 110 rockets between February 23-24, with both sides stopping the exchanges and calling the round over around 23:30 of February 24th.

This time, too, the PIJ remained alone in the arena with Israel. It certainly was not as intensive as the previous round (Operation Black Belt, when Baha was killed) nor the escalations when Baha was still alive.

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Today marks one year since Israel performed the targeted killing operation in which Baha Abu al-Ata was targeted and killed. Israeli security forces are on alert for possible attacks to mark this anniversary and warn Hamas and the PIJ not to do it. Regardless whether this day will pass on quietly or violently, the past year suggests that by killing Baha Abu al-Ata, the overall atmosphere is that the hostilities appear somewhat more manageable, less prone to get out of hand and to escalate into a full-scale war. But there is no real deterrence. The extent to which Israel managed to promote its interests seem quite minimal, if at all, other than the above noted. The actual goal of an absolute ceasefire was not achieved, not in terms of completely stopping all PIJ attacks and not in terms of stopping rockets and mortars from being fired.

About the Author
Shahaf Rabi is the former Founding Director of the Israeli Center for the Study of Targeted Killings, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He runs the Security Studies Review (www.securitystudiesreview.com). Reflecting his research interests, topics often written about include: future of warfare, targeted killing, innovation of armed organizations, and more.
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