Fear grows of full-scale war in Lebanon after assassination of Hamas leader by Israel

Analysts say Hezbollah faces a balancing act in its response to Israel's attack

The Hamas office struck by an Israeli drone in Beirut, Lebanon, on Tuesday. Getty Images
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Concern grew in Lebanon that the Israel-Gaza war could spill over the border, after the deputy head of Hamas's political wing was assassinated in Beirut on Tuesday.

The drone strike that killed Saleh Al Arouri, along with two Hamas military commanders and four other members, was the first such Israeli attack on the Lebanese capital since 2006.

Residents in Beirut's southern suburb of Dahiyeh, where the attack on a Hamas office took place, said they were bracing for a strong retaliation against Israel from the Lebanese Hezbollah group.

The owner of a restaurant near the site of the attack said the assault marked a "serious escalation".

“Things have changed now," the restaurant owner said.

"We are expecting a serious response from Hezbollah. Israel has no limits. Today they are targeting Dahiyeh and southern Lebanon, what is it going to be tomorrow?"

Hezbollah, a powerful armed group allied with Hamas and backed by Iran, holds sway in Dahiyeh.

A day after the Israeli attack, roads remained blocked with the group's fighters patrolling the area.

People were taking pictures and videos of the damaged building, its second floor bearing a gaping hole, while what appeared to be members of the security forces carried out investigations.

Since October 8, Hezbollah and the Israelis have traded fire daily over the Lebanon-Israel frontier.

Yet the conflict has not turned into a full-scale war, with Hezbollah showing relative restraint in its attacks, despite recent escalation from the Israeli side.

Strong response

“We are afraid of a war, but when your land keeps coming under attack, we need a strong response. We cannot lose our dignity,” said the restaurant owner.

Others said the response to Israel lay in the hands of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, who was scheduled to speak on Wednesday evening.

“The rules have changed and the response to this attack must be significant," said another resident, who asked to remain anonymous.

"But we are waiting on Sayyed Nasrallah's decision on what the response should be. We fully trust his judgment."

Some residents said they did not know there was a bureau for Hamas in the area.

'Attack on sovereignty'

The attack, which happened in a densely populated area during peak hours, also damaged civilian infrastructure. In the morning, shop owners and employees were cleaning up glass debris scattered on the ground caused by the explosion.

“The blast shattered the windows of some buildings and shops because it was so strong. My first concern was my family and my neighbours. I immediately knew that it was Israel,” said Sawsan, a 30-year-old shopkeeper.

Mr Al Arouri is the most senior Hamas official killed by Israel since the war on Gaza started.

The US Treasury accused him of serving as “a key financier and financial facilitator for Hamas military cells planning attacks and fomenting unrest”.

Israel has neither claimed or denied responsibility for the attack.

Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview that “this was not an attack on the Lebanese state”.

But residents disagreed.

“It's happening on our land. How would you feel if a country attacked your territory?” said Zahra, a 26-year-old resident.

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati called the strike a “new Israeli crime”, stressing that Lebanon remains committed to "relevant international legitimacy”, which he said Israel had breached.

Some residents criticised what they described as a tendency to dismiss attacks in Dahiyeh as merely targeting a Hezbollah stronghold.

“I've come across online comments from some Lebanese who suggested that we deserved such attacks,” said Zahra.

The political scene in Lebanon is deeply polarised between pro and anti-Hezbollah camps.

Political analyst Joseph Daher said the Israeli attack was still an attack on Lebanon's sovereignty.

"Dismissing its significance by claiming that Dahiyeh is not truly Lebanon is highly dangerous as it is a political attempt to justify it. It is also a sign of Lebanon's profound sectarian and political divisions,” he said.

Hezbollah is facing a difficult balancing act, Mr Daher added.

“On one hand, Hezbollah does not want a war, which it knows would be very costly and Iran does not want to risk Hezbollah's military capabilities and political influence, its 'crown jewel'. On the other hand, Hezbollah is forced to respond, in a way that would not be considered by Israel as crossing the limits," he said.

"But where is the limit? That's the whole issue, and the risk of a miscalculation is real.”

Updated: January 04, 2024, 3:43 AM