Israeli forces targeted and killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in a drone strike in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, on Tuesday, according to sources from Lebanese and Palestinian security. This incident heightens the potential for the conflict in Gaza to extend beyond the Palestinian enclave. Arouri, 57, became the first senior Hamas political leader to be assassinated since Israel initiated a significant air and ground offensive nearly three months ago in response to Hamas’ surprise assault on Israeli towns.
Hezbollah, a heavily armed ally of Hamas, has been engaging in almost daily clashes with Israel along Lebanon’s southern border since the start of the Gaza war in October. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah issued a warning to Israel against carrying out assassinations on Lebanese soil, promising a “severe reaction.” Following Arouri’s killing, Hezbollah claimed to have targeted a group of Israeli soldiers near Marj with missiles.
While Israel has accused Arouri of orchestrating lethal attacks against its citizens, a Hamas official asserted that he played a crucial role in negotiations conducted by Qatar and Egypt regarding the Gaza conflict’s outcome and the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
Israel neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for the assassination. However, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the military spokesperson, stated that Israeli forces were in a heightened state of readiness, prepared for any scenario, and emphasized their focus on combatting Hamas.
‘WAITING FOR MARTYRDOM’
Israel had accused Saleh al-Arouri, a co-founder of the Hamas’ military wing, the Izz-el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, of ordering and supervising Hamas attacks in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for several years. In August 2023, Arouri expressed anticipation of martyrdom, acknowledging Israeli threats to eliminate Hamas leaders, whether in Gaza or abroad.
Following Arouri’s killing, Nasser Kanaani, spokesperson for Iran’s foreign ministry, a major supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, stated that the incident would likely fuel resistance against “Zionist occupiers” in Palestine and the broader region, inspiring freedom-seekers worldwide.
In response to Arouri’s death, hundreds of Palestinians protested in Ramallah and other West Bank towns, chanting “Revenge, revenge, Qassam!” Meanwhile, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen vowed to persist in their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea until Israel ceases its actions in Gaza. The Houthis warned of targeting U.S. warships if their group was attacked. Two anti-ship ballistic missiles were fired into the southern Red Sea by Houthi militants, with no reported damage. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) confirmed the missile launches. Additionally, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations Authority reported up to three explosions near a merchant vessel in the Bab al-Mandab Strait, east of Eritrea’s Assab, but without any reported damage.
In response to these developments, the U.S. announced the formation of an international maritime task force to safeguard shipping through the Red Sea, a crucial route leading to the Suez Canal, responsible for transporting approximately one-third of global container cargo.
AL SHIFA HOSPITAL
The Gaza war was initiated by a cross-border Hamas assault on Israeli towns on Oct. 7, during which Israel claims 1,200 people were killed, and around 240 hostages were taken back to Gaza.
In the past 24 hours, the Gaza health ministry reported 207 additional casualties, bringing the total recorded Palestinian death toll to 22,185 in nearly three months of conflict in Gaza. Israel asserts that it aims to minimize harm to civilians and attributes civilian casualties to Hamas embedding fighters among them—an accusation Hamas denies.
During the Gaza war, the Israeli targeting of Al Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in November raised concerns globally about the fate of civilians and patients inside. Israel contended that Hamas used tunnels beneath the hospital as a headquarters and used patients as shields.
A U.S. official, citing declassified U.S. intelligence on Tuesday, stated that U.S. spy agencies assessed that Hamas and Islamic Jihad had utilized Al Shifa to command forces and hold some hostages but mostly evacuated it before Israeli troops entered.
The Israeli bombardments in Gaza have created a humanitarian disaster, affecting the 2.3 million residents and leaving thousands destitute. The lack of food supplies has put many at risk of famine.
HAMAS RESPONDS TO CEASEFIRE PROPOSAL
Shortly before Arouri’s assassination, Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh, also based outside Gaza, mentioned that the movement had communicated its response to an Egyptian-Qatari ceasefire proposal. Haniyeh reiterated that Hamas’s conditions included a “complete cessation” of Israel’s offensive in exchange for the further release of hostages.
Israel estimates that 129 hostages are still in Gaza, with some released during a brief truce in late November and others killed during airstrikes or rescue attempts. Israel has vowed to continue its fight until Hamas is eradicated, but its plans for the enclave post-success remain unclear, raising questions about the prospect of an independent Palestinian state.
In Washington, the State Department criticized Israeli cabinet ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir for “inflammatory and irresponsible” statements advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza. Such statements fuel concerns in the Arab world that Israel aims to displace Palestinians, repeating the mass dispossession experienced during Israel’s creation in 1948.