• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

Beirut killing puts target on Hamas leaders — wherever they are


Jan 4, 2024


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Even after almost three months of intense urban warfare, Israel has not killed many of Hamas’s top leaders in Gaza. But the killing of Saleh Arouri, a senior Hamas official living in Beirut, shows that they may have more luck outside of the Strip, raising the prospect of a new and perhaps more unpredictable stage of the conflict.

Israel has not made any claims of responsibility for the Tuesday attack on Arouri, though the target and method — two precision missiles fired by drone into a dense neighborhood — leave few with much doubt. Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that they would strike Hamas officials outside of Palestinian territory since the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that left 1,200 dead.

The death of Arouri, the highest-ranking member of Hamas to be killed since Oct. 7, presents major practical and symbolic problems for the Palestinian organization.

Political leader Yehiya Sinwar and military chief Mohammed Deif, both considered masterminds of the attack on Israel, are presumed to be in hiding amid Israel’s military operation in Gaza. The strike in Beirut means Hamas officials outside of Israel and the Palestinian territories may now be forced to go into hiding, too. Some of the organization’s most important figures, such as Qatar-based political head Ismail Haniyeh, had lived relatively openly in foreign cities. Other lower-level Hamas operatives dotted around the world should now realize they are at risk, too.

Israel has a long history of elaborate assassination plots, sometimes chasing targets for decades, long after they’ve stopped posing a threat. Speaking the day after the strike that killed Arouri, the head of Mossad, David Barnea, compared the situation to Operation Wrath of God, the multiyear plan to kill Palestinian militants linked to the 1972 attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.

“It’ll take time, as it took time after the Munich massacre, but we will put our hands on them wherever they are,” Barnea said at the funeral of former Mossad head Zvi Zamir, who led Israel’s intelligence service at the time of the Munich attack that killed 11 members of the country’s Olympic delegation.

Hezbollah leader vows ‘punishment’ after killing of Hamas official in Lebanon

Little is known about how Arouri was tracked and targeted. A Hezbollah spokesperson told The Washington Post that the Hamas official had been due to meet with Hasan Nasrallah, the elusive leader of the Lebanese paramilitary group.

The killing of Arouri took place in Dahieh, a dense suburb of Beirut where Hezbollah dominates. Though the attack did not kill any Hezbollah officials, it was widely seen as an affront to the power of the group. In a speech Wednesday, Nasrallah said Israel would face “a response and punishment” without revealing specifics.

In practical terms, a skillful emissary for Hamas has been removed from the equation. Arouri was seen as responsible for helping Hamas forge relations with Iran and its allies. Before being forced into exile, he was known for his influence in the West Bank and had been linked to efforts to reach a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, the rival group that dominates that territory, according to the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Since 2015, the United States has offered a $5 million reward for information on Arouri, stating that he “funds and directs Hamas’s military operations in the West Bank and has been linked to several terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings.” A senior U.S. official, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity following ground rules set by the Biden administration. said Arouri had “American blood on his hands.”

“Very senior members of Hamas must be held accountable, and [Arouri] was held accountable,” the official added.

Threats against his life came well before Oct. 7. In August, following months of violence in the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to warn Arouri, telling cabinet members that it was “not a coincidence that [Arouri is] in hiding.”

In an analysis for the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Hanin Ghaddar and Matthew Levitt wrote that Arouri’s death was “a significant loss” for Hamas and that the “loss of someone so intimately involved in both tactical operations and strategic diplomacy is a serious setback for Hamas.”

Iran showcases its reach with militia attacks across Middle East

Israel can claim a significant tactical victory. Shifting toward targeted killings in the “third phase” of the war could allow it to avoid the criticism of civilian deaths in Gaza, while still hobbling Hamas as an organization. U.S. officials have offered tacit support, noting that targeting key figures is more in line with the policy that Washington initially recommended.

“We don’t believe that military attacks alone are going to eradicate an ideology and it’s not likely that you’re going to get rid of every single Hamas fighter,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Wednesday. “What they absolutely can do is eradicate the threat that Hamas poses to the Israeli people. And you can do that by going after the leadership. You can do that by going after their infrastructure. You can do that by going after their resources.”

But a tactical victory isn’t always a strategic one. So far, Hezbollah behaved cautiously regarding Gaza, despite warnings of a broader regional conflagration. Its reaction to the killing of Arouri is still unfolding — but if Nasrallah pushes for further conflict with Israel, it will drain resources still needed near Gaza and could draw Iran and Syria into open conflict with Israel.

Though Hamas leaders may fear more attacks, it seems less likely that Israel will now strike officials like Haniyeh who are based in Qatar. The Gulf State has played a significant role in brokering hostage releases and is an important U.S. military partner. Turkey, another location for numerous Hamas officials, has warned of serious consequences for assassinations on its soil.

Meanwhile, the longer-term impact on Hamas is far from certain. Analysts who track the group say a rivalry developed in recent years between Arouri and other officials based outside of Gaza; some accounts suggest that only Sinwar and others based in the strip knew about Oct. 7, leaving the outsiders in the dark about the history-making operation.

Israeli officials know well the unexpected consequences of targeted killings. In 1992, the Israel Defense Forces killed cleric Abbas al-Musawi, along with his wife and son, with a Hellfire missile strike in southern Lebanon. He was unexpectedly succeeded as leader of Hezbollah by Nasrallah, now acknowledged as both far more radical and capable than the man that Israel killed.


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