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The killing of a Hamas chief in Lebanon is embarrassing for the group Hezbollah, which should have been protecting him, and presents a potential “flashpoint” in the three-month-long war in Gaza, a former Israeli intelligence officer said.
Deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri died on Tuesday in a drone strike widely blamed on Israel in the Beirut suburb Dahiyeh, a stronghold of Hezbollah, which is aligned with the Palestinian militants, Reuters reported, citing Lebanese media.
It was the first apparent assassination of a Hamas official outside the Palestinian Territories since Hamas’ attack on Israel on October 7 was followed by a siege of Gaza by Israel Defense Forces. The siege has killed at least 22,300 Palestinians, according to officials in the Hamas-controlled territory cited by the Associated Press.
Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Israel had not taken responsibility for this attack but that “whoever did this did a surgical strike against the Hamas leadership.” The Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson’s unit declined to comment on its involvement when contacted by Newsweek.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said Arouri’s killing was an expansion of Israel’s hostility against Palestinians, while Islamic Jihad said in a statement, “This crime will not go unpunished.”
Regional analyst and former Israeli intelligence official Avi Melamed said that Israel will likely see a response from Gaza, the West Bank, and Palestinian groups in Lebanon but is avoiding claiming responsibility to give Hezbollah the ability to protect its image and avoid further escalation.
“Israel’s likely remaining silent on claiming responsibility is likely intended to give Hezbollah the space to avoid entry into the direct escalation,” he told Newsweek in emailed comments.
“We are likely to see a response from Gaza, likely a barrage of rockets targeting Israeli cities, and possibly some escalation from the West Bank,” he said.
“On the northern border, it’s likely that Hezbollah will allow Hamas and other Palestinian groups to escalate their attacks on Israel, possibly even crossing the red line, but still remains to be seen whether Hezbollah itself will engage in that escalation.”
Al-Arouri, 57, was the deputy chief of Hamas’s political bureau and a founder of the group’s armed wing, the Qassam Brigades.
He had taken on the role of spokesperson for Hamas and told Al Jazeera last month that the group would not discuss an exchange of the captives the group is holding before the war ends in Gaza.
He was labeled a “global terrorist” by the United States, which in 2015 issued a $5 million reward for information on him, and was in exile in Lebanon after spending 15 years in an Israeli jail.
“The attack does present a moment of shame for Hezbollah and a potential flashpoint in the war between Israel and Hamas,” Melamed said.
Al Arouri was Hezbollah’s guest in Lebanon, where he had regularly met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, with whom he scheduled to meet this week, he said. “He was a charge in their protection and for him to be killed while in a Hezbollah stronghold only adds to the situation.”
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