The writing was on the wall for Bahaa Abu al-Ata, considered the biggest nuisance in the Gaza Strip, and on Tuesday the stars aligned for Israel’s military to carry out a strike it had been planning for months.
The IDF was given the green light to carry out the strike 10 days ago, and to carry it out when it deemed that the operation – which took out the most influential Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative in the Gaza Strip – was most likely to succeed.
Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman said during a joint news conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi that the “stars aligned” to carry out the strike early Tuesday morning.
More radical than his bosses in Damascus or Tehran, al-Ata lived as a fugitive whose death could happen at any moment, out of the clear blue sky. But he still did what he wanted, when he wanted, whenever he wanted.
While Hamas is the ruling party in the Strip, in recent years it has been losing its grip over the streets with the vacuum being filled by al-Ata, the former military commander of the group’s northern brigade who had significant influence over the group across Gaza.
Since PIJ has no responsibility for the citizens there, al-Ata had more than enough freedom to act against Israel with no concern for repercussions, especially since Israel’s military always targets Hamas outposts following any violence.
A household name in Gaza, al-Ata was unknown to the Israeli public until several months ago, when he was personally named by the IDF as the man behind the launching of dozens of rocket barrages toward Israel as well as other attacks.
Al-Ata had been on Israel’s hit list for years. Yisrael Beytenu chairman and former defense minister Avigdor Liberman said that last year he called for the targeted killing of the PIJ leader, but was “forcibly blocked” by Netanyahu after the IDF’s top brass were opposed to the strike at the time.
In September, Netanyahu reportedly pressured senior defense officials to agree to a preemptive strike against PIJ leaders including al-Ata. But again, the top brass of the IDF was against such action saying the timing just wasn’t right.
But his death was just a matter of time.
This “perfect” timing to carry out the targeted assassination of a major terror operative in Gaza, as well as another failed strike on a senior PIJ operative in Damascus blamed on Israel, came as the Israeli Air Force was carrying out a large-scale international aerial drill north of Eilat.
The bi-annual Blue Flag drill is a massive exercise with pilots from the United States, Greece, Germany and Italy flying with some of the most advanced platforms in the world.
It also led many to wonder what those allied nations were doing during such a tense time. Did the IDF cancel the drill? Suspend flights? And the Israeli jets – where were they? Over Gaza?
In the afternoon on Tuesday, jets were seen flying in formation in the skies over Jerusalem. Fighter jets don’t tend to fly over the capital, so such a sight at such a tense time left many on the street wondering what was going on.
Throughout the course of the day, over 190 rockets had been fired toward Israel, which responded with numerous strikes on PIJ targets in retaliation. That’s not a small number, but it pales in comparison to the close to 700 rockets fired by PIJ and Hamas over a two-day period in May.
By last evening, 12 hours after the first rocket was fired toward Israel, relative quiet seemed to return.
But all is relative here. Islamic Jihad is probably waiting for the right timing to strike again.