The escalation in tensions between Israel and Gaza didn't completely surprise Israeli Intelligence. It seems on the surface that the recent rounds of rockets were unforeseen, as the border with Gaza has been relatively less tense over the past two months.
Yet there has lately been an air of concern in the Defense Ministry over the man currently suspected of being the culprit behind the latest escalation with Gaza: Baha Abu al-Ata.
The head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) Al-Quds Brigades in Gaza, Baha Abu al-Ata is considered one of the top terrorists in the blockaded coastal enclave. While Hamas is the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, the group has in recent years been losing control over the street. And the vacuum is being filled by Ata, Tehran’s main man in Gaza.
While PIJ is a Sunni Jihadist movement, it’s supported by Iran, which directs the group through PIJ’s chief Ziad Nahala, who resides in Damascus.
Ata has been involved in planning attacks against Israel, manufacturing arms and upgrading long-range rocket launching capabilities. The second largest group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas, PIJ has been assessed by military intelligence as a factor increasing the risk of an escalation in the blockaded coastal enclave, since it is not under the direct control of Hamas but acts independently for its own interests.
Ata was identified by the IDF as having ordered the firing of rockets towards southern Israel in April. According to the IDF, under Ata, PIJ is trying to carry out low-level attacks and maintain a low profile so that Hamas doesn’t figure out its ambition to undermine a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
“There are dozens of countries around the world which are trying to improve the humanitarian situation in the Strip, but at the same time, there is one man inside Gaza and one man outside the Strip trying to torpedo that,” former IDF spokesperson Brig.-Gen. (res.) Ronen Manelis said at the time.
Today, Hamas is no longer the number one threat in the Gaza Strip. PIJ has been responsible for several violent attacks on IDF troops during the "Great March of Return" protests along the Gaza border fence, including the first death of a soldier there since Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when St.-Sgt. Aviv Levi was shot by a sniper near Kibbutz Kissufim. Another soldier was struck by sniper fire in the area less than a week after Levi was killed. In late January, an IDF officer was lightly wounded in the same area after his helmet was struck by sniper fire along the Gaza Strip security fence, in an attack for which PIJ claimed responsibility.
Like Iran's Soleimani and Hezbollah's Nasrallah, Ata may also now be in the IDF’s crosshairs. He too has survived several assassination attempts, including during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. While the IDF continues to hold Hamas responsible for all that occurs in the Strip, one day the retaliation against PIJ will come.