‘Israeli warning’: Beirut bombing sparks anger, fear in Lebanon

On the streets of Beirut, there is anger over what people believe was an Israeli violation of their sovereignty, in which seven people were killed.

People gather outside a damaged building following a massive explosion in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. The TV station of Lebanon's Hezbollah group says top Hamas official Saleh Arouri was killed Tuesday in an explosion in a southern Beirut suburb.(AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
People gather outside the building in Beirut, Lebanon, where Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri and others were killed in a drone strike on Tuesday, January 2, 2024 [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Beirut, Lebanon — Lina Mounzer is convinced that Israel wants to escalate the war in Gaza.

The Lebanese writer and researcher has a family home in Dahiya, the Hezbollah-controlled residential neighbourhood in Beirut that was bombed by a drone on Tuesday night, killing seven people, including Hamas politburo member Saleh al-Arouri.

Israel has not officially accepted responsibility for the attack — in fact, Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried, in a television interview, to distance his country from the attack, without outright denying that it was behind the bombing.

But Mounzer has no doubt.

“I think it is generally Israel’s modus operandi,” she told Al Jazeera. “They are warning that they will escalate. It’s similar to when they bombed the first hospital in Gaza. When they realised that there wasn’t going to be an [international outcry], then they started bombing hospitals left, right and centre.”

On the streets of Lebanon, too, people are convinced Israel had attacked Beirut, much as it had laid siege to the city in 1982, and fears are mounting among Lebanese who are angry about their country’s territorial sovereignty being violated, yet also concerned that any response from Hezbollah could pull Lebanon into a wider conflict.

In addition to al-Arouri, six other people were also killed, including two senior Hamas military officials and, two members of Jama’a Islamiya, according to a person close to the Lebanon-based political movement.

The men from Jama’a Islamiya provided services such as transportation for al-Arouri, a source close to the group told Al Jazeera.

“It’s just the fear of an imminent attack on our capital and attacking people in our capital that is insane and unfathomable at this point,” said Michelle Eid, a Lebanese researcher.

“There are a lot of people in Lebanon against the [Israeli] attacks regardless of their political affiliation,” she told Al Jazeera.

Testing the Waters?

After al-Arouri’s assassination, Israel’s Defence Minister Yoav Gallant told reporters that he does not want an escalation with Hezbollah.

After Hamas’s surprise attack on Israeli military outposts and communities on October 7, Hezbollah – which is backed by Iran and part of the so-called Resistance Axis that also includes Hamas – began a low-intensity conflict with Israel on its southern border.

While violence in the south has displaced more than 72,000 people and killed more than 120  – including civilians – many in Lebanon believe that Hezbollah has taken adequate measures to avert an all-out war with Israel. But Hezbollah is now in a tough spot, according to Mounzer.

She said that the armed group risks triggering an escalation if they retaliate for al-Arouri’s killing, but they could also fail to deter future Israeli attacks if they do not. “To tell you the truth, I’m resigned to the idea that this [Hamas-Israel] war is going to widen,” she added.

Rules of Engagement?

Many Lebanese civilians have faith that Hezbollah will not drag Lebanon into an all-out war.

Karim Saifeddine, a Lebanese expert from southern Lebanon, said that extending the war to Beirut would be pointless. He added that the war in south Lebanon is relatively contained compared with what is taking place in Gaza and that most Lebanese would prefer to keep it that way.

“I don’t think an all-out war is something that neither most Lebanese want nor the political leaders of Hezbollah prefer,” Saifeddine told Al Jazeera. “But I do believe Hezbollah will escalate. However, they will escalate within certain rules of engagement that may not elicit a major response from Israel.”

Ronnie Chatah, a Lebanese commentator and the son of former Finance Minister Mohammad Chatah, who was killed in a car bomb in 2013 that many accuse Hezbollah of conspiring, also said that neither Hezbollah nor Iran wants a major war.

“For Iran, keeping Hezbollah in Lebanon is more important than Hamas in Lebanon,” he told Al Jazeera. “Hezbollah remains [Iran’s] crown jewel and testing the limits of that crown jewel is not something that I think Iran wants to do right now.”

Fear of Israel, not Hezbollah

Saifeddine told Al Jazeera he believes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has clear motives to continue the war in Gaza – and possibly escalate his northern front with Hezbollah – to extend his political career.

According to a recent survey by the Israel Democracy Institute, which gauges public opinion every month, only 15 percent of Israelis want Netanyahu to remain in power after the war on Gaza. But 56 percent of Israelis support Netanyahu’s continuing offensive on Gaza, while 50 percent support expanding the northern front with Hezbollah.

“The ball is also in Israeli’s court [not just Hezbollah’s] and I believe they have an interest in prolonging this war and to find ways to use Israeli air supremacy against the various militants they are fighting,” said Saifeddine

Eid, the Lebanese researcher, said that in many ways, the war has already reached her country, with Israel frequently invading its airspace with drones and planes, signalling their ability to escalate at any time.

“To be honest, we can’t even discern if it’s a passenger plane or an Israeli plane because of how frequently the Israelis have been passing over us,” Eid said.

Source: Al Jazeera