An apparent drone strike by Israel in southern Beirut that killed Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri along with five others militants Tuesday has Israel braced for retaliation along the already dangerously violent border with Lebanon, according to multiple U.S. and Israeli officials.
A key Hamas commander in the West Bank and later exiled to Qatar, Syria, Turkey and Lebanon, al-Arouri had long been targeted by Israeli intelligence for both attacks on Israelis and his key role in unifying Hamas with Hezbollah and Syria during internal tensions over the Syrian civil war, said an Israeli official on condition of anonymity because Israel has not taken official credit for the assassination.
The strike comes just a month after Israeli officials said Hamas commanders located abroad in places like Turkey, Qatar, and Lebanon would be targeted in revenge for the Oct 7 attacks. On Tuesday, Turkish authorities—who responded to Israel’s threat with a dire warning—announced the arrests of 33 people accused of links to Israeli intelligence.
“Arouri played a key role in developing Hamas military capabilities in the West Bank for decades and was a founder of the [Hamas military wing,]” said the official. “It is believed he was among the only, if not the only Hamas official outside of Gaza with prior knowledge of the Oct. 7 massacres. Al-Arouri also played a key role in re-unifying Hamas with Hezbollah and Syria after a split over the crackdown on Syrian rebels in 2014.”
Al-Arouri was killed along with two other Hamas commanders and a reported three bodyguards when a drone, widely believed to be Israeli, struck the first floor apartment in a large building in southern Beirut close to Hezbollah’s operational headquarters. The killing came about three months after the Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli settlements and bases around the Gaza Strip that killed about 1200 people and saw more than 200 kidnapped, sparking a violent response by the Israeli military that has destroyed much of the coastal enclave and killed about 23,000 people.
Allies of Hamas in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have responded to the Gaza assault with more than 100 attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq, increasingly heavy fighting between Hezbollah and Israel along the border with Lebanon, leaving scores dead and the effective closure of Red Sea shipping lanes because of sea attacks by the Houthis, a Yemeni militant group closely aligned with Hamas and Hezbollah.
Although Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, the Houthis, and a variety of Iraqi groups backed by Iran closely coordinate on operations and share training and weapons, each group maintains a level of operational autonomy, according to a Hezbollah commander.
“All of the followers of the Axis of Resistance (a coalition of Iranian-backed anti-Western and Israel groups) are united in the path but are different groups with different priorities and their own leadership,” said Abu Jawwad, a commander for a section of southern Beirut near where al-Arouri was killed. “We share the path but take individual decisions.”
Top Hamas officials have been based in Beirut under the protection of Hezbollah since the 1990s and its leadership will regularly receive Western journalists in offices and apartments guarded by the Lebanese group.
Both Hamas and Hezbollah have vowed the killing will not go unanswered but did not give specifics.
Al-Arouri’s assassination increases the already volatile situation, said one U.S. official, but it remains unclear how harshly Hezbollah would respond with its powerful military capabilities that dwarf its regional allies.
“Al-Arouri was designated by [the U.S. government] in 2015 for his role in the kidnapping and murder of three Israelis including a U.S. dual national,” said the U.S. official, who cannot comment on the operation in public in part because Israel has yet to officially take responsibility.
“The Israelis have been targeting him for over a decade, so the hope is to avoid escalation with Lebanon and Hezbollah, who were protecting him, because he was a clear military target… no Hezbollah or Lebanese civilians were killed,” said the official. “The Israelis got someone they very much wanted dead and sent a message they were serious about their previous threats to target Hamas officials around the world. But there’s room for [Hezbollah chief Hassan] Nasrallah and Iran to respond without sparking a major escalation.”
“Honestly, it was a very deliberate and targeted strike against a key enemy that minimised political and civilian damage rather than dropping 2000 lb bombs all over residential areas,” the official said. “Obviously we’d prefer to see more surgical operations of this nature and more care in operating inside Gaza itself.”
Nasrallah is scheduled to give a televised speech on Wednesday evening and is expected to directly address the assassination. In previous statements, Nasrallah has warned Israel not to target officials in Lebanon but with daily clashes along the UN-designated Blue Line that separates the two countries, it's not clear how far a response from Hezbollah would go.
For his part, al-Arouri understood that eventually Israel would target him, telling the Hezbollah-linked al Mayadeen news service in August that he expected death.
"The Israeli threat against my person does not change my beliefs and stances, nor will it alter my path by so much as an inch," he said.
With the region facing the worst security crisis in decades, the possibility of a major escalation that drags Iran and the U.S. into a direct confrontation deeply worries regional officials and the mass bombing of a memorial service for a famed Iranian commander just a day after al-Arouri’s assassination further increased those fears.
On Wednesday, unknown bombers struck a memorial at the grave of the notorious Iranian intelligence official Qassem Soleimani, who was killed four years ago by a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad’s airport, killing more than 70 people, according to Iranian state media.
Soleimani was a critical organiser, mentor, and leader to the Iranian-backed militants in the region, including al-Arouri, with whom he was said to have a close working relationship.
Although Iranian Sunni jihadist groups are initially suspected in the bombing in the eastern Iranian city of Kerman, Soleimani hometown, Abu Jawwad of Hezbollah suggested the possibility of Israeli involvement, citing multiple attacks by Israel against Iranian officials involved with its nuclear program .
“It is known that Mossad and the Americans work with Jundallah and other takfiri groups in Iran to destabilise the Islamic Republic,” he said, referring to Sunni Muslim jihadists who consider Shiite Hezbollah and Iran to be apostates. “This is a war and both sides will attack on all available fronts.”