Netanyahu’s bait: Why Israel might have killed Hamas leaders in Beirut now

The assassinations bear the marks of an Israeli operation. But the timing might also be about Israeli domestic politics.

Firefighters extinguish the fire inside an apartment following a massive explosion in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Jan 2, 2024
Top Hamas officials were killed following a massive explosion at an apartment in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, January 2, 2024 [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

The killing of top Hamas officials in what is alleged to be an Israeli attack in Beirut on Tuesday resounded across the Middle East. Although hundreds of people are being killed every day for nearly three months now, the latest targeted killing sent shockwaves, opening old wounds and setting off fears of an escalation of the conflict.

The victims of the attack included senior Hamas leaders. The most prominent was Saleh al-Arouri, a former leader of the Qassam Brigades and member of the political bureau of Hamas who coordinated the group’s military and political activities outside the Gaza Strip, gathering political and financial support. A native of the West Bank, al-Arouri was reportedly one of the most popular Hamas leaders in the Fatah-led parts of Palestine, and his reputation might have grown after October 7.

High-ranking military commanders Samir Findi and Azzam al-Aqraa were also killed, along with four other operatives.

The assassination bore all signs of classic Israeli long-distance targeted eliminations of high-value human targets. Al-Arouri and his companions were killed by a strike that pinpointed a second-floor apartment in the street flanked on both sides by buildings eight storeys high. The action had striking similarities with the killing of Ahmad Yassin, one of Hamas’s founders and spiritual leader of the group, who was eliminated in a street in Gaza by a modified antitank guided missile.

Times and technology change, and so do Israeli capabilities. To kill Sheikh Yassin in 2004, an armoured antitank AH-64 Apache helicopter needed to get within 2km (1.2 miles). The same task is now performed by quieter, smaller unmanned drones that are harder to hear and see, and a new generation of missiles. The combination used in Beirut, undetected, appears to have been an Israeli-built system – Hermes drone and Nimrod missile.

The attack also evoked unpleasant memories of previous military incursions and actions in Beirut that Israel performed with impunity. One of the most notorious clandestine killings happened 50 years ago, in April 1973, when an Israeli commando team landed on Beirut beach and killed three top Palestinian leaders. The Israeli team included future Prime Minister Ehud Barak, donning the dress and makeup of a young blonde woman. In a chilling parallel to Tuesday’s killing, the main target was the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) military leader for the West Bank, Kamal Adwan.

Israel reaped fruits from the action codenamed Spring of Youth for years afterwards, as it polarised Lebanon so deeply that it prompted the resignation of Prime Minister Saeb Salam, followed by armed clashes between pro-Palestinian factions and their opponents and a general breakdown in the political and security situation. Within two years of spiralling mistrust, broken promises, false allegiances and infighting, Lebanon descended into a bloody and exhaustive civil war that would only end in 1990. Israel used the internecine fighting for its goals, fuelling war, arming proxies, and encouraging and abetting massacres like those in Sabra and Shatila in 1982.

The past examples are terrifying, but history does not always have to repeat itself, especially for those who learn from the past.

The first questions an analyst asks are: why him, why now and what will happen next.

“Why him” is in a way a moot question, but it still must be asked. In principle, Israel wants to eliminate as many senior Hamas officials as possible, after October 7 probably with even more determination. Al-Arouri was a very high-ranking Hamas official, influential and capable, different from the rest of the top leadership in being reportedly independent-minded.

Having lived outside Palestine for a long time, in Turkey and Lebanon, he developed his own international contacts and network. Israel, with its usually excellent intelligence, must have been aware of his capabilities and perhaps of his plans that are as yet unknown publicly. If al-Arouri was killed for any political reason, it could probably be his close and frequent physical contacts with the leader of Hezbollah, Hasan Nasrallah, and the numerous Iranian political and military representatives present in south Beirut. He probably engaged with them daily, as a trusted partner. In that role, it will be hard for Hamas to immediately replace him.

“Why now” is probably the key question. There is little doubt that Israel was immediately aware of his 2015 settling in Beirut after years on the move; although all Hamas leaders follow strict security routines, those were surely more relaxed before October 7, and there would have been plenty of opportunity to assassinate him earlier.

Both Hezbollah and its protector and patron Iran have shown remarkable restraint and political patience in not rushing to attack Israel after it started bombing and then assaulting Gaza. Israel’s initial calculation had to consider the possibility of Hezbollah opening a second front, but after almost three months of relative quiet in the north, Israeli forces allowed themselves to demobilise five brigades, obviously convinced that whatever fighting it will have to do in future, it will be in the strip.

But many prominent Israeli politicians, generals and influentials have been warning that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not see eye to eye with the generals. Rather, he may see the continuation of war being in his direct interest.

“The government of Netanyahu does not want this war to end. Politically, Netanyahu has a major problem on the day after [the war ends] as this is when inquiries will begin as to the failures on the Israeli side,” warned former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy just days ago.

If you fear the end of the war – why not push it into the future, prolong it? Why not open another front in the north, have more of your own men and women in uniform, have the country continue on a war footing, preventing citizens and politicians from asking unpleasant questions? Why not use the convenient opportunity to prolong the atmosphere in which politicians from the farthest right like Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich may continue to advocate the extreme views such as the expulsion of Palestinians from Gaza and resettling of Israelis instead? All of this would be consistent with the behaviour of the Israeli prime minister, say experienced Netanyahu watchers.

The big question now is whether Hezbollah will swallow the obvious bait. A high Iranian delegation that included several senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps generals is reported to have flown to Beirut on Wednesday. Nasrallah apparently cancelled his speech previously announced for Thursday, releasing on Wednesday a recorded address in which he reiterated his usual warnings to the enemies of Hezbollah, but without revealing any concrete decisions. He is now almost certainly conferring with his Iranian allies on the eventual Hezbollah reaction to the Beirut killings.

The answer to “what will happen next” might emerge from those meetings.

Source: Al Jazeera