Israel has launched a strike in Beirut targeting a senior Hamas military leader, Saleh al-Arouri, killing him along with three others on January 2nd. The attack threatens to expand the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups to Lebanon and widen the war.
Background of the Israel-Hamas Conflict
The tensions between Israel and Hamas have been simmering for decades, with origins going back to the formation of Israel in 1948. Various violent clashes and wars have broken out periodically since then.
In recent years, clashes erupted in 2021 over eviction threats in East Jerusalem and expanded to an 11-day war where over 250 people in Gaza and 13 people in Israel died. A ceasefire was eventually brokered by Egypt, but did not resolve the underlying tensions.
Smaller flareups occurred through 2022 and 2023, with Israel launching strikes in Gaza and Hamas firing rockets into Israel intermittently.
Renewed War Breaks Out in Late 2023
On December 23rd, 2023, Israel launched a series of airstrikes in Gaza after it said militants fired two rockets from the territory. One Israeli missile hit a house, killing a senior militant, his wife and four children. Hamas vowed revenge.
Fighting rapidly escalated from there into a full blown war by the end of December. Both sides have inflicted heavy civilian casualties, with over 500 Palestinians and 50 Israelis dead so far.
Over 50,000 Palestinians have been displaced by the Israeli bombing campaign according to UN estimates. Israel has said the strikes target militant sites like tunnels and rocket launching areas.
Al-Arouri Assassinated in Beirut
Saleh al-Arouri was a deputy leader of Hamas and one of its most important military figures. He was seen as close to the Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh and oversaw Hamas’ operations in the West Bank area.
Al-Arouri had long been a target for Israel. As a founder of Hamas’ military wing he was linked to kidnapping and killing Israeli soldiers. Israel held him responsible for financing and planning Hamas militant operations.
His assassination threatens to expand the war because of his key role as a liaison between Hamas and its state sponsors – Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
Reactions to the Attack
Hezbollah issued statements vowing retaliation for the killing of al-Arouri on their home territory. They stated “the response to this crime will not be delayed”. As a powerful party within Lebanon with a large missile arsenal, their entry into the war would be a major escalation.
Hamas also issued calls for revenge, with senior leader Ismail Haniyeh stating that “resistance forces will not weaken or fall, but will continue with our struggle”.
Protests against the assassination broke out in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and the West Bank. Protestors chanted threats against Israel and support for Hamas.
The Israeli government and military has said they are prepared for any response. Other Israeli officials speaking anonymously to media hinted at plans for further assassinations of Hamas leaders.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cutoff his visit to India and returned to Israel to handle the crisis. He stated that “Israel will do whatever it must to defend our people”. His governing coalition has given strong backing for heavier strikes in Gaza.
What Comes Next?
There is fear the conflict now moves to a dangerous new phase with an activation of the Iran-Hamas-Hezbollah alliance. This could turn the Gaza war into a multi-front confrontation.
Hezbollah may retaliate with rocket attacks from Lebanon while Hamas tries to respond from Gaza. Israel would likely retaliate heavily. This risks sparking a 2006-type war with Lebanon combined with 2021-type war with Gaza simultaneously.
International peace brokers like Egypt and Qatar may try to intervene to prevent further escalation. However with emotions inflamed on all sides, the violence may be difficult to control in the short term.
The Biden administration has urged deescalation and may intervene itself. Though political pressures and support for Israel makes US intervention complicated.
For now the region braces for potential serious expansion of the war beyond Gaza as funerals for al-Arouri spark calls for revenge across multiple fronts. Both Israeli and Palestinians civilians face continued suffering with no end to the conflict in sight.
Saleh al-Arouri profile:
Escalating death toll timeline:
Hezbollah and Hamas reactions:
Analysis of coming escalation:
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