Gaza report card: Assassination revealed IDF's strengths and weaknesses

What we learned from al-Ata’s secret apartment in Gaza City from a military, diplomatic and political situation.

AN ARMED man walks past the home of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata after it was bombed on Tuesday.  (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
AN ARMED man walks past the home of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata after it was bombed on Tuesday.
The bomb that flew through the window of Bahaa Abu al-Ata’s secret apartment in Gaza City did far more than just kill a top Islamic Jihad terrorist. It revealed a new relationship between Israel and Hamas, exposed the IDF’s strengths and weaknesses, and also dealt a critical blow to the possibility that Benny Gantz will form a government with the Arab Joint List.
From a military perspective, the IDF did an impressive job throughout the two days of fighting. First was the accurate targeted assassination of al-Ata, which killed him and his wife but no one else, not a small tactical feat. More importantly, the military showed that it has not lost its ability to strike terrorists on the move, even though it has been some time since it did so.
This was demonstrated by the numbers. In two days of fighting, the IDF struck and killed more than 20 Islamic Jihad terrorists and commanders, some moving on motorcycles and others in fields, ready to launch rockets. This was primarily thanks to what is known in the military as the “fire canopy,” a small war room located at the IDF’s Gaza Division.
It is here, in a heavily-fortified dome-like structure, where officers from the IDF’s different branches – Air Force, Ground Forces and Navy – sat alongside their counterparts from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) and Military Intelligence, received real-time intelligence on various targets, and then allocated the appropriate weapon to be used to attack, in most cases a missile launched from an IAF aircraft. The room is lined with screens, showing live footage of Gaza from Israel’s various sensors, be they ground-based cameras or reconnaissance drones overhead.
“This is a place where you see a synthesis and synergy of intelligence and operations,” one officer who has participated in these kinds of missions in the past explained. “The fire canopy is the center of everything that Israel does over and inside Gaza.”
What contributed to the success was the constant flow of high-quality intelligence that enabled the IDF to shorten the sensor-to-shooter cycle in ways that used to be unimaginable. If a few years ago it took five minutes or longer from the moment the IDF identified an enemy until it was able to attack, today it is just a fraction of the time.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that the IDF misread what Islamic Jihad would do after the assassination of al-Ata and decided to close all schools and offices in the Tel Aviv area, sowing panic across the country.
The IDF Home Front Command explained that the initial decision was based on the assumption that Islamic Jihad would use the long-range missiles it has in its arsenal to strike at Tel Aviv and its surrounding areas. It is easy to criticize the decision after nothing happened, they say, but if a school or office building had been hit, people would be speaking a lot differently.
That might be true. Nevertheless, it is difficult to shake the feeling that half of Israel was paralyzed and shut down because of a second-rate terrorist organization. Islamic Jihad is not even the most powerful terror group in Gaza. That is Hamas, and had Hamas joined the fighting (more on that below), the decision to order people to stay home might have made a bit more sense.
The problem is that this decision – even if correct in the moment – did not get missed by Iran, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group thinking about a war with Israel one day. If Islamic Jihad was able to shut down half of Israel for almost two days, what will happen when there is a real war in Israel, and rockets are raining down from Lebanon, Syria and Iran?
Part of fighting is demonstrating resilience and fortitude. If an enemy knows that with the firing of a few rockets they can shut down Israel’s commercial capital, they will use that against us next time. Weakness is not forgiven in the Middle East.
In 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reached a deal with Hamas to secure the release of Gilad Schalit, the IDF soldier abducted by the terrorist group five years earlier. Among the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners Israel let go in the exchange was a man by the name of Yahya Sinwar, a Hamas commander who had been sitting in an Israeli jail cell for 22 years as part of a four life-term sentence.
Netanyahu probably didn’t know back then that eight years later, he and Sinwar would be allies in Israel’s battle against Islamic Jihad. Sinwar and Netanyahu might not talk directly with one another, but messages are conveyed between Israel and Hamas via a range of mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations.
The result of this relationship manifested in a change in policy that was hard to miss this week. For the last 10 years, Israel has pretty much held Hamas responsible for everything that happened in the Gaza Strip. A rocket fired by Hamas or Islamic Jihad was always met by the same response – an Israeli attack against Hamas. Shots fired across the border saw the same – a strike against a Hamas position. This time though, Israel didn’t just not target Hamas, but it carefully executed all of its attacks against Islamic Jihad in a way that ensured that no one in Hamas would be harmed and no Hamas asset would be damaged.
The reasoning was two-fold: on the one hand, Israel assessed correctly that if it didn’t hurt Hamas, kill anyone from Hamas or damage any of Hamas’s infrastructure, the ruler of the Gaza Strip would prefer to sit out this round. This stemmed from an understanding that Sinwar, the leader of Hamas since 2017, is currently focused on building up economic power in Gaza than in fighting Israel.
This doesn’t mean that Sinwar has moderated in any way. He still believes that Israel is an enemy that needs to be destroyed. But for the first time, his interests aligned with Israel. Islamic Jihad and particularly al-Ata were disrupting his efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire with Israel, which would bring Hamas and the people of Gaza economic respite in the form of work permits, industrial zones, a new power plant and monthly suitcases of Qatari cash that Israel allows into his bank accounts.
The removal of al-Ata from the stage and the weakening of Islamic Jihad help make that possible.
On the other hand, this is a strange position to be in for Netanyahu, the man portrayed as being tough on terror and who promised in the past to topple Hamas. Now, not only is he not instructing the IDF to target Hamas, he is practically working together with it.
Will this strategy work? It is hard to tell, and the situation in Gaza remains volatile and capable of erupting again fairly soon. To stop that from happening, Israel needs to come up with a clear strategy for what it wants from Gaza, and what is its long-term vision for preventing further violence there.
After 10 years as prime minister, two large-scale operations – Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Protective Edge in 2014 – as well as countless so-called “rounds of violence,” Netanyahu has yet to present a clear-eyed strategy. Whoever is prime minister in the coming weeks should make this one of his top priorities.
Everything is political, the saying goes, especially when Israel is in the midst of an electoral stalemate with a third election in one year looming on the horizon. This applies to the recent round of violence as well, which could not escape being politically tainted, even if just slightly.
The first indication that this week’s clash was being used for political purposes was at the news conference that Netanyahu convened on Tuesday at noon. Naftali Bennett had officially taken up his role as defense minister an hour earlier, but was nowhere to be found when the prime minister gave his media statement alongside the IDF chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet. Why was Bennett not in the room or at the table?
The answer is obvious: why share credit when you don’t have to?
The second political display was on Wednesday, when Netanyahu, after a meeting of the cabinet, surprised the Knesset by entering the plenum and taking the podium. He spoke for about five minutes, but they were strategic. During his remarks, members of the Arab Joint List yelled and heckled him, leading ushers to remove MK Ahmad Tibi from the hall. Netanyahu probably knew that would happen, just like he knew that the Arab MKs would tweet against the operation and the targeted killing of al-Ata on Tuesday.
The byproduct of this was important: it showed Israelis who the members of the Joint List are, what they say, and how they criticize the government and the IDF even at a time when hundreds of rockets are being fired into the country. Netanyahu was basically saying to Gantz: ok, now go form a government with the support of the Arab MKs. That option – if Gantz was even contemplating it seriously – suffered a decisive blow during the two days of fighting in Gaza.
It is unclear if the Gaza operation will have an impact on the political process still in play, but it could come in handy for anyone who needs a ladder to walk back a promise made during the recent election cycles.
Gantz, for example, could use the security situation to explain why he is willing to now join a government led by Netanyahu and to remain in it even after an indictment. Netanyahu could alternatively use the situation to detach himself from Yamina and the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) parties, otherwise known as the bloc of 55, and Yisrael Beytenu’s Avigdor Liberman could use it to rejoin the Right, excusing his 180-degree turnaround by the need to create a government that can fight Israel’s enemies.
When the going gets tough, Gaza always comes in handy.