The ostensible reason Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) fired hundreds of rockets at Israel this week was the IDF’s assassination of one of its senior commanders, Abu al-Atah—itself a response to a Palestinian rocket barrage a few days beforehand. To Michael Koplow, the killing of Atah was intended to send a direct message to Tehran:
More than any other [country], the Israeli government has naturally been concerned about Iran’s aggressive posture, and Israel needs to take action that will not only disrupt Iran but will send a message of deterrence. For the past two years, Israel’s mechanism for doing this has been repeated strikes on Iranian weapons and proxies in Syria, but that avenue has recently become more complicated. Not only does it risk a rupture with Russia, Israel appears to have calculated that it may risk a direct conflict with Iran. When Hizballah fired anti-aircraft missiles at an Israeli drone last week and Israel let the incident go without destroying the launchers, it was the clearest sign that the rules of the game in Syria have changed to Israel’s detriment.
Killing Abu al-Atah is one way for Israel to deal with the new regional balance outside of the Syrian theater. Islamic Jihad is Iran’s closest proxy in Gaza: it is financed, armed, and directed by the Islamic Republic. Its Iranian sponsorship explains why, despite its relative paucity in size compared to Hamas, it is better funded and by most estimates controls a rocket arsenal of equal numbers. Taking out its military commander in Gaza is the closest Israel can come to hitting Iran directly, and while PIJ does not have the ability to threaten Israel in the same manner as do Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon, targeting Abu al-Atah was the best move available to Israel if it wants to exercise greater caution in Syria. Aside from potentially making southern Israel a bit quieter going forward, this was intended to give Iran pause.
[Moreover], the strike on Islamic Jihad was intended to . . . test Hamas. . . . In the past, Israel has hit Hamas targets in response to rockets from Gaza irrespective of which entity has done the firing, on the theory that Hamas is the sovereign in Gaza and is responsible for everything that happens there. This time, Israel is consciously doing things differently and it is not coincidental. . . . If Hamas indeed continues to refrain from responding to Israeli actions in Gaza targeting Islamic Jihad, it will go toward confirming the theory of daylight between the two groups, and will drive Israeli assumptions about Gaza going forward.