Israel has ‘right and responsibility’ to go after Hamas leaders, White House says

Comments come after assassination of Saleh Al Arouri, the first senior Hamas official killed outside Gaza

A woman holds images of Saleh Al Arouri, centre, and Iran's Qassem Suleimani during a ceremony to mark the fourth anniversary of Maj Gen Suleimani's killing in a US attack. Reuters
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Israel has a “right and responsibility” to go after Hamas leaders, the White House said on Wednesday, a day after a senior Hamas official and at least six others were killed in a drone strike in Beirut.

The strike was widely believed to have been conducted by Israel.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US estimates that Hamas still has “a significant force posture” in Gaza.

“Israel has a responsibility to go after the threat that Hamas poses which means they have a right and responsibility to go after the leadership,” Mr Kirby told journalists during a regular news briefing. “We expect that they will do that in accordance with international law.”

Saleh Al Arouri, deputy head of the Hamas political bureau, was killed in the strike on Tuesday, Hamas confirmed, in an explosion at an office belonging to the group in southern Beirut.

Israel has not claimed responsibility. But the assassination marked a significant development in a war that is now well into its third month.

It also marked a major escalation in attacks between Israel and Lebanon, which, up until Tuesday, had been limited to cross-border exchanges of fire in southern border areas.

Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hamas ally Hezbollah in Lebanon, vowed to respond to Mr Al Arouri's killing.

Mr Nasrallah spoke during a speech commemorating the fourth anniversary of the killing of Iranian leader Qassem Suleimani in a US drone strike in Iraq.

Mr Kirby said the Biden administration does not want to see Israel's war on Gaza widen in the region, but said Mr Al Arouri was a legitimate target.

“Al Arouri was a noted, designated global terrorist and if he is in fact dead nobody should be shedding a tear over his loss,” Mr Kirby said.

Israel launched a wide-scale military operation on Gaza on October 7 after gunmen from the group attacked Israel, killing 1,200 people.

More than 22,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, the majority of them civilians. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble and the majority of the enclave's residents have been displaced.

Israel, which has been striking Gaza by air, land and sea, has rejected calls for a ceasefire and said it would continue to press on with its campaign until Hamas is eradicated.

Mr Kirby said that the goal of eliminating Hamas as a military threat is “absolutely attainable”, though erasing the group or its ideology from existence is probably not possible.

“The US believes the elimination of Hamas is attainable for the Israeli military forces to degrade and defeat Hamas's abilities to conduct attacks inside Israel, this can be done militarily,” Mr Kirby said.

“Are you going to eliminate the ideology? No. And are you likely going to erase the group from existence? Probably not. But can you eliminate the threat that Hamas poses to the Israeli people? Absolutely.”

Updated: January 04, 2024, 8:02 AM