On January 2, 2024, a drone strike in Beirut killed Saleh al-Arouri, the deputy leader of Hamas and the founder of its militant operations in the occupied West Bank. He was among seven people who died in the blast, which also included two Hamas military commanders and four other members. The strike was widely attributed to Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied its involvement. The assassination of al-Arouri is a major blow to Hamas, as he was a key figure who had helped repair its relations with Iran and had been in charge of a joint war room with the Islamic Republic since the war began in October. It also threatens to escalate the conflict, as Hamas and its ally Hezbollah vowed to retaliate against Israel for the attack.
Who was Saleh al-Arouri?
Saleh al-Arouri, 57, was born in the village of Aroura near Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. He joined Hamas in the late 1980s and was arrested by Israel several times for his involvement in attacks against Israeli targets. He spent a total of 15 years in Israeli prisons, where he became a prominent leader of the Hamas prisoners. He was released in 2007 as part of a prisoner swap deal and was expelled to Syria, where he established Hamas’s West Bank branch and oversaw its operations from abroad. He was responsible for orchestrating several deadly attacks, including the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014, which sparked a 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. He also masterminded a failed plot to overthrow the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank in 2015.
After the Syrian civil war broke out, al-Arouri moved to Turkey, where he continued to direct Hamas’s activities in the West Bank and maintained contacts with Iran and Hezbollah. He was a close ally of Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, and was elected as his deputy in 2017. He also played a crucial role in restoring Hamas’s ties with Iran, which had been strained by the Syrian conflict. He visited Tehran several times and met with senior Iranian officials, including the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He also coordinated with Hezbollah and other Palestinian factions to form a joint war room to confront Israel in the current war, which erupted after Hamas launched a massive attack on Israel on October 7, 2023, killing about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking around 240 hostages to Gaza. Israel responded with a massive military offensive, which has killed more than 22,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, in Gaza.
What are the implications of his assassination?
The killing of al-Arouri is a significant setback for Hamas, as he was one of its most senior and influential leaders, who had a wealth of experience and connections in the region. He was also seen as a potential successor to Haniyeh, who is reportedly ill and has not been seen in public for months. His death leaves a vacuum in Hamas’s leadership and could weaken its ties with Iran and Hezbollah, which have provided it with financial and military support. It also exposes the vulnerability of Hamas’s leaders, who have been targeted by Israel in several strikes, both in Gaza and abroad.
The assassination of al-Arouri also risks escalating the war, as Hamas and Hezbollah have vowed to avenge his death and to punish Israel for violating Lebanon’s sovereignty. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that the strike was an assault on the Lebanese state and the resistance, and that Israel would pay a heavy price for it. He also warned that Hezbollah would retaliate against any Israeli targeting of Palestinian officials in Lebanon. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that the attack was a “terrorist act” and a “declaration of war” by Israel, and that Hamas would respond with all means. He also called on all Palestinian factions to unite and confront the Israeli aggression.
The assassination of al-Arouri also raises questions about the role of other actors in the region, such as the United States, which has been trying to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, and Lebanon, which has been struggling with a political and economic crisis and has been hosting thousands of Palestinian refugees. The US has not commented on the strike, but has previously expressed its support for Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas’s attacks. Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the strike and accused Israel of trying to “drag” Lebanon into a regional war. He also called for an emergency meeting of the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council to address the situation.
What are the prospects for peace?
The assassination of al-Arouri comes amid ongoing efforts to end the war, which has entered its 89th day and has caused widespread devastation and suffering in Gaza and Israel. The US has been leading the diplomatic efforts to broker a ceasefire, but has faced resistance from both sides, who have rejected several proposals and have continued to exchange fire. The main sticking points are the fate of the hostages, the lifting of the blockade on Gaza, and the recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political actor. The US has also been trying to involve other regional and international players, such as Egypt, Qatar, Turkey, Russia, and the European Union, to facilitate the negotiations and to provide humanitarian aid to the affected populations.
However, the prospects for peace seem dim, as the war has hardened the positions and the sentiments of both sides, who have shown little willingness to compromise or to trust each other. The war has also deepened the divisions and the polarization among the Palestinians, who have been split between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, and among the Israelis, who have been facing political instability and social unrest. The war has also exposed the fragility and the complexity of the regional order, which has been affected by multiple conflicts and crises, such as the Iranian nuclear issue, the Syrian civil war, the Yemeni war, and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. The war has also challenged the role and the influence of the US, which has been trying to balance its support for Israel with its outreach to Iran and its engagement with other regional actors.
The assassination of al-Arouri adds another layer of uncertainty and tension to the already volatile situation, and could trigger a new cycle of violence and retaliation that could further undermine the chances for peace. The war has shown the limits and the costs of the military option, and the need for a political solution that addresses the root causes and the grievances of the conflict. However, such a solution requires a vision, a leadership, and a will that seem to be lacking on both sides, and a regional and international environment that is conducive and supportive of peace. Until then, the war is likely to continue, with more bloodshed and suffering for the people of Gaza and Israel.
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(2) Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri killed in Beirut blast – BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-67866346.
(3) Israel assassinates senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2024/01/02/israel-assassinate-senior-hamas-saleh-al-arouri-beirut/.
(4) Assassination of Saleh al-Arouri – Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assassination_of_Saleh_al-Arouri.
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