Israel 'gambling' on Hezbollah avoiding all-out war after killing of Saleh Al Arouri

Analysts say fatal Israeli strike on Hamas official in Beirut is unlikely to prompt any change in strategy

People pay their respects to one of those killed alongside Hamas's deputy leader by an Israeli strike in southern Beirut. Reuters
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Israel is gambling that its assassination of senior Hamas official Saleh Al Arouri in Beirut will not lead to a major escalation in its conflict with Hezbollah and Iran, analysts told The National.

The killing of Mr Arouri, who was deputy head of Hamas's political bureau, in a drone attack is seen as a significant escalation and a major break of the informal rules of engagement between Israel and Hezbollah.

Israel may have felt emboldened to carry out the strike – its first in Beirut since 2006 – by the relative restraint shown by Hezbollah and Iran since the outbreak of cross-border fighting between Israeli forces and the Iran-backed group on October 8.

“The government of Israel recognises Iran’s strategy and its limitations,” said Imad Salamey, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University in Beirut.

“Therefore Israel is more willing to escalate in terms of confrontation because they know it’s unlikely to lead to an open confrontation – either on the [Lebanese] front or in the region.”

Iran’s proxies, including Hezbollah, have rallied to militarily support their ally Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, after the group's attack on Israel October 7.

The Lebanese Hezbollah group has led the fight from its homeland – and in some cases Syria – where it has waged a contained border conflict with the stated aim of pressuring and deterring Israel from its assault on the besieged Gaza Strip.

The conflict in Lebanon has so far claimed more than 160 lives, including at least 19 civilians, although the vast majority of those killed have been Hezbollah militants and allied fighters. On the Israeli side, the death toll stands at nine soldiers and five civilians.

But the Iran-backed group has stopped short of initiating full-scale war, remaining restrained despite Israel’s increasingly aggressive responses on Lebanon. So, too, have other Iran-backed groups such as Yemen’s Houthis and Iraq’s Kataib Hezbollah.

Who was Saleh Al Arouri, the Hamas leader killed in Lebanon?

Who was Saleh Al Arouri, the Hamas leader killed in Lebanon?

Hezbollah in difficult position

Israel's decision to hit Beirut puts Hezbollah in a difficult position after it publicly declared it would not tolerate any Israeli assassinations in Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech last year that targeted assassinations by Israel in Lebanon would “not be tolerated".

"We will not allow Lebanon to become a new field of assassinations for Israel,” he said.

And in another speech in November, Mr Nasrallah warned Israel against making a “mistake” which would “exact a price you can’t even imagine”.

But despite Mr Nasrallah’s rhetoric, Hezbollah has so far shown little desire to trigger a major war with Israel since it became active on the Lebanese front in support of Hamas. Not the civilian deaths, nor the major destruction in parts of southern Lebanon close to the border, nor the triple-digit Hezbollah death toll has been enough to elicit a strong response.

It remains to be seen what form Hezbollah’s – and Iran’s – retaliation will take.

In a statement on Tuesday evening, Hezbollah called the killing of Mr Arouri “a serious assault on Lebanon, its people, its security, its sovereignty, and its resistance” and promised the "crimes will not pass without response and punishment".

While the strike is an escalation, Israel is gambling that Iran will maintain its strategy of avoiding a major war, despite being under pressure to save face, experts say.

Mohanad Hage Ali, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, a Beirut-based think tank, said Mr Al Arouri’s assassination was a significant and “direct strike against the first brass of Hamas”.

“But the Iranian strategy is to play a secondary support role in this conflict," he added.

"It would be difficult to see them turn this into a major war between Hezbollah and Israel.”

Still, Iran and proxies will “try to calibrate the response to save face”.

Israel's gamble?

A veteran Palestinian official in Gaza who handles communications between the Palestinian Authority and various factions told The National: "Israel is gambling".

He added Israel was "edging towards a bigger war with Hezbollah and telling the US it is not afraid to expand the war, even without Washington standing by its side".

"It is logical to assume that this gamble is very dangerous and has many consequences."

But the group has attempted to walk the fine line between mid-intensity conflict and full-scale war with Israel.

“Israel recognises that Iran doesn’t want regional war, nor does it want an open confrontation on any of its fronts where allies exist,” Mr Salamey said. “Instead it wants to maintain asymmetrical long-term warfare where Iran can negotiate political concessions” through its proxies.

Iran-backed militant groups across the Middle East – including the Houthis in Yemen and Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq – have united to support their ally Hamas in Gaza and pressure Israel.

Israel is under pressure to showcase a victory in the war in Gaza. Since Hamas killed 1,200 people on October 7, more than 174 Israeli soldiers have been killed in Gaza, and tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced from northern Israel due to the threat from Hezbollah.

Israel has so far failed in its stated aim of eradicating Hamas, despite Gaza's Ministry of Health reporting the deaths of more than 22,300 people in the enclave, mostly civilians.

According to Mr Salamey, Hamas is persisting with operations in Gaza and has retained logistical capabilities. The group has continued to launch missiles into Israel, inflict serious harm on the Israeli military in Gaza daily and, most importantly, "they’ve made the Israeli invasion extremely costly for the Israelis on all levels: morally, politically, internationally and economically".

“The cost of Israel sustaining this war is not easy. Hamas has adapted to the situation and continued its operations,” Mr Salamey said.

“Israel is desperate to showcase some kind of tangible victory. And it is crossing red lines and taking a risk of a major escalation just to make some kind of win, which [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and his government can sell domestically and internationally.”

Updated: January 04, 2024, 6:21 AM