Al Arouri's killing in Beirut is unlikely to make Israel any safer

The assassination of a senior Hamas official abroad in the middle of the brutal assault on Gaza will only escalate tensions

Hamas supporters in Hebron, West Bank, protest on January 2 against the Israeli strike in Lebanon that killed Al Arouri. AFP
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A precision airstrike killing Saleh Al Arouri, one of the most senior figures in the Palestinian militant group Hamas, at his home in Beirut on Tuesday has threatened to make an already combustible situation between Israel and its neighbours much worse. Although it has not formally claimed responsibility, Israel is suspected of having conducted the strike as part of its ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Killing Mr Al Arouri in Lebanon was a dangerous move for two reasons. First, it escalates a war that has already killed more than 22,000 Palestinians and more than 1,000 Israelis. Second, it widens the war’s contours – already expanded by Israeli airstrikes in recent weeks along the Lebanese border and in various locations in Syria – all the way to the Lebanese capital.

Analysts have frequently taken to using words like “precision”, “co-ordination” and “sophistication” to describe Hamas’s shock attack against Israel on October 7. Hamas, it seemed, had planned the attack to a standard even the most unified and disciplined forces might find difficult to achieve.

Ironically, the sophistication and unity presented in Hamas’s operation has never been matched within the organisation as a whole. Like many militant groups, Hamas has long been divided between pragmatic and extremist elements. The former had, in previous years, inched the group closer towards a modus vivendi with Israel, while the latter has pushed it deeper into the Iran-backed “axis of resistance” that comprises a host of other militant groups destabilising the Middle East.

The killing widens the war’s contours all the way to the Lebanese capital

Mr Al Arouri was a leader – by some accounts, a primary leader – in Hamas’s extremist wing. His death is no great loss to the cause of peace. Nor, however, is it a gift. The October 7 attack was the greatest sign yet of the extremists’ ascendancy within the Hamas ranks – a rise precipitated by growing certainty among Gazans that pragmatic approaches no longer have any hope of working against Israeli repression because, the argument goes, Israel’s government is not open to peace. Its tolerance of settler violence in the West Bank, its insistence that Palestinians should remain geographically and politically divided and – most of all – the brutality of its campaign in Gaza are all a testament to that.

De-escalation and moves towards a ceasefire would, of course, be the best way for Israel to prove its critics wrong at this moment in time. Expanding its revenge killing to foreign capitals and higher-profile targets is not. In fact, there is little evidence that assassinations of this kind have ever made Israel safer. But there is plenty of evidence they have bred more extremists.

Israel’s government was clearly aware of how provocative conducting a strike in Beirut would be. Almost immediately afterwards, Mark Regev, a spokesperson for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stammered in an interview with a US television channel, stressing: “Whoever did this, it’s not an attack on the Lebanese state. It’s not an attack on the Hezbollah terrorist organisation. Whoever did this, it’s an attack on Hamas.”

Hezbollah, the militant group controlling Lebanon’s government, appears to disagree. It released a statement on Wednesday calling Mr Al Arouri’s killing “a serious assault on Lebanon”.

It is far from certain that Hezbollah will allow the death of a Hamas official – even on Lebanese soil – to drag it into a ruinous conflagration that could see it lose its grip on the Lebanese state. Nonetheless, there is a risk, and the consequences for everyone – in Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and elsewhere – would be catastrophic.

Thus far, the world has relied on the US, Israel’s main supporter, to rein in any Israeli government designs to take the fight to Lebanon. Officials in Washington are said to have put immense pressure on Mr Netanyahu to that end. Clearly, they ought to be putting more.

Published: January 03, 2024, 2:12 PM