Baha Abu al-Ata

Baha Abu al-Ata was a U.S.-designated commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades. Abu al-Ata was a Gaza-based member of PIJ’s military council and commander of the terror group’s operations in northern Gaza.“Executive Order Amending Counter Terrorism Sanctions Authorities; Counter Terrorism Designations and Designations Updates; Iran-related Designation; Syria Designations Updates,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 10, 2019, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20190910.aspx; Steve Hendrix and Ruth Eglash, “Israel kills a senior leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza airstrike,” Washington Post, November 12, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/israel-kills-senior-leader-of-palestinian-islamic-jihad-in-gaza-air-strike/2019/11/12/bc2817d0-0506-11ea-9118-25d6bd37dfb1_story.html. He responsible for multiple rocket attacks against Israel, according to U.S. and Israeli officials. Israel killed Abu al-Ata in a targeted airstrike in Gaza on November 12, 2019, prompting calls for war from PIJ. The terror group fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, prompting multiple Israeli airstrikes against the Gaza Strip.Adam Rasgon and Jacob Magid, “Islamic Jihad declares ‘We’re going to war,’ after IDF kills its strongman,” Times of Israel, November 12, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/islamic-jihad-declares-were-going-to-war-after-idf-kills-its-strongman/; Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi, “Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation,” Reuters, November 13, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians-violence/gaza-death-toll-reaches-23-in-second-day-of-escalation-idUSKBN1XN0FR.

PIJ eulogized Abu al-Ata as one of the most prominent members of the Al-Quds Brigades. The Jerusalem Post labeled Abu al-Ata as “Tehran’s main man in Gaza,” noting his close ties with the Iranian leadership.Anna Ahronheim and staff, “Who is Abu al-Ata: The man behind rocket fire from Gaza Strip,” Jerusalem Post, November 3, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Who-is-Abu-al-Ata-The-man-suspectedly-responsible-for-Gaza-escalation-606639. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Abu al-Ata “the main instigator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip.”“Israel kills top Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant in Gaza,” BBC News, November 12, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50386164. Abu al-Ata was a politically connected longtime leader in PIJ. He previously served as deputy commander of the al-Quds Brigades in northern Gaza. In October 2019, Abu al-Ata and PIJ Secretary-General Ziad al-Nakhalah attended a meeting in Cairo with Egyptian officials that resulted in the release of 81 Palestinians from Egyptian prisons.Adam Rasgon, “Islamic Jihad official says Egypt will release 81 Palestinian detainees,” Times of Israel, October 17, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/islamic-jihad-official-says-egypt-will-release-81-palestinian-detainees/; Shlomi Eldar, “IDF says it had no choice but to kill Islamic Jihad senior,” Al-Monitor, November 13, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/11/israel-gaza-strip-islamic-jihad-idf-naftali-bennett-rockets.html.

Israel held Abu al-Ata personally responsible for multiple PIJ rocket attacks throughout 2019. According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Abu al-Ata “acted in every way to sabotage attempts for calm with Hamas” and “was responsible for the majority of attacks” in 2019.Anna Ahronheim, “IDF hits anti-tank missile team; Gaza dead at 23, mostly terrorists,” Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Massive-barrage-towards-southern-and-central-Israel-shatters-quiet-607709. Former IDF spokesman Brigadier-General (res.) Ronen Manelis lamented that while dozens of countries were trying to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza, “there is one man inside Gaza and one man outside the Strip trying to torpedo that,” referring to Abu al-Ata in Gaza and likely Nakhalah in Syria.Anna Ahronheim and staff, “Who is Abu al-Ata: The man behind rocket fire from Gaza Strip,” Jerusalem Post, November 3, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Arab-Israeli-Conflict/Who-is-Abu-al-Ata-The-man-suspectedly-responsible-for-Gaza-escalation-606639.

Abu al-Ata reportedly did not seek approval from the PIJ leadership before ordering the launch of rockets into Israel, nor coordinate with the Hamas government that was actively trying to maintain a fragile ceasefire with Israel. Palestinian sources in the Gaza Strip were reportedly concerned that this defiance would lead Israel to target Abu al-Ata.“Israel kills top Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant in Gaza,” BBC News, November 12, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50386164. After Abu al-Ata allegedly ordered the launch of a rocket into Israel on April 29, 2019, the IDF tweeted a photo of Abu al-Ata, holding him responsible and accusing PIJ of undermining Israel’s ceasefire between with Hamas. Israeli media viewed the tweet as a warning that Abu al-Ata might be specifically targeted.Anna Ahronheim, “IDF hits anti-tank missile team; Gaza dead at 23, mostly terrorists,” Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Massive-barrage-towards-southern-and-central-Israel-shatters-quiet-607709; Judah Ari Gross, “IDF accuses Islamic Jihad of Gaza rocket fire, cuts fishing zone as punishment,” Times of Israel, April 30, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-accuses-islamic-jihad-of-gaza-rocket-fire-cuts-fishing-zone-as-punishment/.

Abu al-Ata had previously survived multiple Israeli assassination attempts. Israel tried to assassinate him in November 2012 during Operation Pillar of Defense, an eight-day Israeli operation in response to rocket attacks from Gaza.Matthew Kalman, “Massed Israeli Troops Poised for Invasion of Gaza,” Independent (London), November 15, 2012, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/massed-israeli-troops-poised-for-invasion-of-gaza-8316615.html; Jack Khoury, “Who Was Baha Abu al-Ata, Gaza's Elusive Islamic Jihad Commander Assassinated by Israel,” Haaretz (Tel Aviv), November 12, 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-gaza-jihad-islamic-war-1.8071140. On August 3, 2014, during the summer war between Israel and Hamas, Israel killed al-Quds Brigades commander Daniel Mansour, while Abu al-Ata—who was serving as Mansour’s deputy—survived an assassination attempt.“Who was slain Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata?,” Al Jazeera, November 12, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/islamic-jihad-commander-bahaa-abu-al-atta-191112111441690.html.

The Israeli government reportedly decided in September 2019 to assassinate Abu al-Ata after PIJ fired a barrage of rockets at the Israeli cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was holding an election rally in Ashdod. Security officials rushed Netanyahu off stage when the city’s rocket sirens sounded. Israeli intelligence directly blamed Abu al-Ata and Netanyahu reportedly decided after the event to target him.Shlomi Eldar, “IDF says it had no choice but to kill Islamic Jihad senior,” Al-Monitor, November 13, 2019, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/11/israel-gaza-strip-islamic-jihad-idf-naftali-bennett-rockets.html; Lahav Harkov, “Netanyahu rushed off Ashdod stage after Gaza rockets fired at city,” Jerusalem Post, September 11, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Breaking-News/Rocket-sirens-sound-in-Ashkelon-and-Ashdod-601243. Israel again blamed Abu al-Ata after PIJ fired rockets toward the southern Israeli town of Sderot on November 1.“Attack on a building in Gaza in which a Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior commander resided,” Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 12, 2019, https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/ForeignPolicy/Terrorism/Palestinian/Pages/Attack-on-a-building-in-Gaza-in-which-a-Palestinian-Islamic-Jihad-senior-commander-resided-12-November-2019.aspx.

Before dawn on November 12, 2019, an IDF drone hovered over Abu al-Ata’s apartment building in Gaza City before physically entering the apartment to ascertain that he was inside. Minutes later, an airstrike killed Abu al-Ata and his wife, Asma, inside the apartment. At least two other people were reportedly wounded.“i24NEWS Exclusive: IDF drone entered Islamic Jihad leader’s home before assassination,” i24News, November 13, 2019, https://www.i24news.tv/en/news/israel/diplomacy-defense/1573637516-i24news-exclusive-idf-drone-entered-islamic-jihad-leader-s-home-before-assassination?fbclid=IwAR3dJZNLq6-475p-vyETFQliMY2DQsbo2CJFbi9GJllU1tSoCFqrrBLl9UU; “Israeli forces kill top Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza air raid,” Al Jazeera, November 12, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/israeli-forces-kill-top-islamic-jihad-commander-gaza-strike-191112040427905.html. According to an IDF statement, Abu al-Ata was planning an “imminent” attack on behalf of Iran.“Israel kills powerful Islamic Jihad commander Abu al-Ata in targeted Gaza strike,” Times of Israel, November 12, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-kills-powerful-islamic-jihad-commander-al-ata-in-targeted-strike/. A PIJ statement said Abu al-Ata was killed during a “heroic action.”“Israeli forces kill top Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza air raid,” Al Jazeera, November 12, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/11/israeli-forces-kill-top-islamic-jihad-commander-gaza-strike-191112040427905.html. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum called Abu al-Ata an “icon of the Palestinian resistance” in a statement and promised that Israel would “pay a price.”“Press release on assassination of Islamic Jihad commander,” Hamas website, November 12, 2019, https://hamas.ps/en/post/2420/press-release-on-assassination-of-islamic-jihad-commander. Israel closed schools and businesses along the Gaza border in preparation for retaliation.“Israel kills powerful Islamic Jihad commander Abu al-Ata in targeted Gaza strike,” Times of Israel, November 12, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/israel-kills-powerful-islamic-jihad-commander-al-ata-in-targeted-strike/.

Within the 24-hour period following Abu al-Ata’s death, PIJ declared it was going to war and launched 350 rockets at Israeli population centers. Israel responded with airstrikes targeting rocket positions along the Gaza border. At least 23 Palestinians were killed, including PIJ field commander Khaled Moawad Faraj. Israel reported injuries but no fatalities.Adam Rasgon and Jacob Magid, “Islamic Jihad declares ‘We’re going to war,’ after IDF kills its strongman,” Times of Israel, November 12, 2019, https://www.timesofisrael.com/islamic-jihad-declares-were-going-to-war-after-idf-kills-its-strongman/; Anna Ahronheim, “IDF hits anti-tank missile team; Gaza dead at 23, mostly terrorists,” Jerusalem Post, November 13, 2019, https://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Massive-barrage-towards-southern-and-central-Israel-shatters-quiet-607709; Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi, “Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation,” Reuters, November 13, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-palestinians-violence/gaza-death-toll-reaches-23-in-second-day-of-escalation-idUSKBN1XN0FR.

 
United States

The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Baha’ Abu al-‘Ata on September 10, 2019, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.“Executive Order Amending Counter Terrorism Sanctions Authorities; Counter Terrorism Designations and Designations Updates; Iran-related Designation; Syria Designations Updates,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, September 10, 2019, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/sanctions/OFAC-Enforcement/Pages/20190910.aspx.

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