Jan 2, 2024 - World

What to know about Saleh al-Arouri, the top Hamas official killed in Beirut

Saleh al-Arouri in Cairo, Egypt, on Oct. 12, 2017. Photo: Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

The fact Hamas deputy political leader Saleh al-Arouri was killed in a drone strike on Tuesday likely didn't surprise many. Al-Arouri himself had long expected to be killed.

The big picture: The 57-year-old was one of the most wanted men in the Middle East, with close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah.

  • "I am not afraid [of] their threats to kill me…I have already lived more than expected. I feel I passed the age I was supposed to die.... When I die as a martyr, I will welcome it," al-Arouri said in an interview on Hamas' al-Aqsa television channel last August.

Driving the news: The Israeli government hasn't publicly claimed responsibility for the strike that killed al-Arouri, but one Israeli and two U.S. officials confirmed Israel was behind the attack.

  • Al-Arouri was a target for Israel for years, but it hesitated to try to kill him in Istanbul and later in Beirut in order not to harm relations with Turkey and avoid provoking Hezbollah from starting a war, Israeli officials said.
  • But after Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7 and killed at least 1,200 people according to Israeli officials, Israel was ready to take more risks.
  • The head of the Shin Bet intelligence agency Ronen Bar said in November that the Oct. 7 attack is "our Munich," pointing to the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympic Games when members of the "Black September" Palestinian militant group killed nearly a dozen Israeli athletes. In the years after that attack, Israel's Mossad spy agency assassinated many of the members and leaders of the organization.
  • "In Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar – everywhere. It will take us a few years but we will destroy Hamas," Bar said in November.

Background: Al-Arouri was from a village near Ramallah and helped found Hamas' military wing — Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He spent 15 years in Israeli prison before being deported to Jordan in 2010. Soon after, he was deported to Syria but had to leave for Turkey as a result of the rift between Hamas and the Assad regime.

  • While in Turkey, al-Arouri established the West Bank headquarters of Hamas, which is in charge of recruiting operatives and planning attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians.
  • One such attack was the 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, which led to a 51-day war in Gaza.
  • The U.S. in 2015 designated al-Arouri a "Specially Designated Global Terrorist" and has for years offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Two of the Hamas members who were killed with al-Arouri in Beirut were the commanders of Hamas' military wing in Lebanon, which in recent months conducted attacks against Israeli outposts on the border.

  • Al-Arouri was also the point person in Hamas for military coordination with Hezbollah and with Iran's Quds force.

Zoom out: The killing of al-Arouri is a major blow to Hamas. He's the most senior Hamas leader who has been killed since the Oct. 7 terrorist attack.

  • But Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh tried to play down the impact on Tuesday, saying in a televised address that like the previous assassinations of its members, the organization's operation won't be influenced.

What to watch: Israel is now preparing for possible retaliation by the Lebanese Hezbollah armed group, which warned al-Arouri's killing would not "go without a retaliation or punishment."

  • Israeli officials told Axios they are concerned Hezbollah will escalate its attacks against Israel and launch long-range precision-guided missiles including on major cities like Haifa and Tel Aviv. Such an attack could lead to a much stronger reaction by Israel that could quickly deteriorate into a regional war.

Before Tuesday's strike, Biden envoy Amos Hochstein was scheduled to travel to Israel later this week for talks on a diplomatic solution that could decrease tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

  • The killing of al-Arouri will undoubtedly make such an initiative — or any negotiations related to the Gaza war — much harder.
  • Hamas told Egyptian and Qatari mediators on Tuesday that it is suspending hostage negotiations, al-Arabiya reported.

Go deeper: What to know about Hamas' military capabilities

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