Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri killed in Beirut strike

Saleh al-Arouri during a press conference in Damascus in December 2010.

APA images

Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy head of Hamas’ politburo, was killed in a strike in a residential area of the southern suburbs of Beirut on Tuesday evening.

Two leaders of the armed wing of Hamas, which was co-founded by al-Arouri, were also killed in what may be the most significant regional escalation since the resistance group’s 7 October military operation.

The slain Qassam Brigades commanders were named as Samir Fandi and Azzam al-Aqraa. Also killed were Hamas cadres Mahmoud Shaheen, Muhammad Bashasha, Muhammad al-Rayes and Ahmad Hamoud.

The Gaza war had already taken on a regional dimension before the assassination of al-Arouri, with the US military attacking and killing 10 Ansar Allah militants who had attempted to board a cargo ship on Sunday. For weeks, the Yemeni rebel group has been preventing international commercial ships from sailing to Israeli ports in solidarity with Palestinians under military attack and siege in Gaza.

Last week, senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officer Reza Mousavi was assassinated in Syria. Iran accused Israel of responsibility for the death of the close confidant of Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a US airstrike in Iraq in early 2020.

In a statement attributed to Izzat al-Rishq, a member of its politburo, Hamas said that the “cowardly” assassinations “will not succeed in breaking the will and steadfastness of our people.” It added that the assassination only proves Israel’s failure to achieve any of the goals of its aggression in Gaza.

An anonymous US defense official told The Washington Post that Israel, which doesn’t typically comment on its assassination operations abroad, was responsible for a strike targeting al-Arouri “and that an assessment” of “whether he had been killed” was ongoing.

Mark Regev, foreign media spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stumbled over his words during an interview with the US broadcaster MSNBC, seeking to avoid Israel claiming responsibility while at the same time defending it as an attack on Hamas and not on Hizballah or the Lebanese state.

Risk of regional escalation

Last week, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “gravely concerned about the further spillover” of the hostilities between Israel and Hamas “which could have devastating consequences for the entire region.”

The risk of a “wider regional conflagration” remains so long as the war rages in Gaza, “given the risk of escalation and miscalculation by multiple actors,” according to a statement attributed to Guterres’ spokesperson.

The deadly strike in Beirut came one day after the US Navy announced that in the “coming days,” the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier would be leaving the eastern Mediterranean, where it had been sent following Hamas’ 7 October military operation.

The New York Times, citing the Navy, reported that “a three-ship amphibious force with more than 2,000 Marines aboard would take over for the Ford in the eastern Mediterranean.”

Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah, who was already scheduled to deliver a speech marking the fourth anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination on Wednesday, warned in August that any assassination on Lebanese soil would not be tolerated.

The resistance “will not allow Lebanon to be an arena for assassinations, and we will not accept changing the existing rules of engagement,” Nasrallah said. “The Israelis should be very well aware of this fact.”

Amal Saad, an expert on the Lebanese resistance group headed by Nasrallah, stated on social media that the assassination of al-Arouri “is a serious escalation that will elicit retaliation from Hizballah” and that “Israel abandoned the current rules of engagement by striking Beirut.”

She said that Hizballah’s response will likely fall short of an all-out war and instead “will likely retaliate in a manner that is at once an escalation that matches the scope of the Israeli assassination and restores the balance of deterrence.”

Hizballah ready for war but doesn’t seek it out

Last week, in an interview with the BBC, Saad said that Hizballah is ready for a full-out war with Israel but is not seeking one out, as it doesn’t wish to see a repeat of the destruction that Israel wrought in Lebanon during the 2006 war.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, has warned Hizballah in Lebanon that “what we’re doing in Gaza, we can also do in Beirut.” In August, Gallant threatened to “return Lebanon to the stone age” during any full confrontation with the resistance group.

Biden administration officials have reportedly been critical of Gallant’s threats against Hizballah and have warned Israel against escalating tensions along the Lebanese border.

Saad said that the only way that Israel would launch a full-scale war in Lebanon would be if it had carte blanche from Washington to do so.

“So far we’ve seen the Biden administration is hesitant, because the US knows full well that if Israel launches a full-on attack on Lebanon, that Hizballah’s response will be devastating,” Saad added.

It would also further entrench other actors into a regional war, including Ansar Allah in Yemen and militant groups in Iraq and Syria.

Saad said that Israel is counting on Washington getting dragged in, adding that this “is the first time we’ve seen the US function as a co-belligerent in any of Israel’s wars” with its neighbors or Hamas.

Netanyahu sought a victory after Gaza failure

The political analyst Elijah J. Magnier said that Israel assassinated al-Arouri so that Netanyahu could boast a victory, given that “he achieved nothing in Gaza after 88 days.”

Magnier said that Netanyahu was seeking to provoke a response from Hizballah and to extend the war to prolong his political career.

He added that Netanyahu sought to bring back the USS Ford to the eastern Mediterranean and to tell the Americans that the “war is not about the Palestinian cause … but about Iran and its allies.”

The Palestinian analyst Abdel Bari Atwan said on Tuesday that the assassination of al-Arouri marked a new phase of Israel’s aggression in Gaza, from which it has withdrawn several brigades after mounting losses, both in terms of personnel and vehicles.

Atwan also said that the killing of al-Arouri “reflects the weakness, defeat and frustration of the occupation” and will only strengthen Hamas, like each assassination that came before.

“The coming days may be very difficult and the beginning of the end for the occupying state,” Atwan added.


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.