“I feel like I have lived past what was necessary. I never expected to reach this age,” Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri is quoted as saying. On January 2, Israel relieved him of these concerns. A seminal figure for the terror group and a key liaison with both Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, al-Arouri was killed by an Israeli drone strike in Dahiyeh, a known Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut. In recent years, al-Arouri led a Hamas base there from which multiple attacks were launched on Israel’s northern front since October 7, when Hamas slaughtered 1,200 Israelis and took 240 more hostage. Al-Arouri was the highest-ranking Hamas official killed by Israel since the massacre; it’s useful to examine the significance of his assassination and its impact on the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict.
Al-Arouri’s importance to the organization is hard to overstate. He was one of the founders of the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military apparatus, and played a key role in planning the October 7 attack, as well as the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in 2014, one of Hamas’s most infamous operations. He was also widely regarded as the mastermind behind Hamas attacks throughout the West Bank. His prominent role in Hamas led the U.S. Treasury Department to designate him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in 2015 and place a $5 million bounty on his head.
Naturally, his assassination drew swift and severe condemnations from across the network of Iranian proxies in the Middle East, including Hezbollah, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and the Houthis, who vowed vengeance and called for a halt to all negotiations to release Israeli hostages. These are strong words, but will they be put into action?
Despite growing fears, al-Arouri’s assassination does not significantly increase the likelihood of a full-scale war in the north. Tensions there are already sky-high, but the real threat comes from Hezbollah, which remains orders of magnitude deadlier than Hamas and far more directly linked to the Iranian regime. While the two terror groups are allied, it’s hard to believe that Hezbollah would risk a catastrophic bout with Israel over this assassination. If a larger conflict does erupt (still a strong possibility), it won’t be because of al-Arouri’s death.
A historical comparison can shed light on Israel’s long-term strategy when it comes to responding to terrorist threats. The chief of Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency, Ronen Bar, compared the October 7 attack with the massacre at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, where Palestinian terrorists from the Black September group murdered 11 Israeli athletes and coaches, as well as a West German police officer. In the aftermath of Munich, agents of Israel’s Mossad eliminated many leaders of Black September across the Middle East. “We will do this everywhere, in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar. It will take a few years, but we will be there to do it,” Bar said in late November 2023.
The U.S. has expressed support for Israel’s efforts to take out Hamas’s leadership. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, reiterated on Wednesday that Israel has a “right and responsibility” to go after Hamas leaders. Given that backing, these operations are likely to continue.
And they should. Israel has a moral obligation to target all Hamas leaders in its pursuit of justice, as any state would in similar circumstances. The sooner Israel gets the job done, the better. Striking Hamas leaders has not only an ethical justification but also potential strategic benefits. True, other terrorists will rise up the ranks of the organization to replace their fallen comrades—even in the case of a leader as “irreplaceable” as al-Arouri. But as several scholars have noted, if assassinations get carried out in rapid succession—as Israel did in 2004, when it assassinated Hamas leader Abdel Aziz al-Rantisi just one month after it had killed the group’s founder, Ahmed Yassin—it can create power vacuums and internal conflicts that hinder a terror group’s ability to act cohesively and efficiently.
Taking out al-Arouri is a net positive for Israel. It represents an important symbolic victory that has significantly boosted the morale and determination of the Israeli people to continue the war effort, while simultaneously demoralizing many in Hamas and instilling a real sense of fear among its leaders, whether they’re hiding in Gaza’s underground tunnels or in glitzy hotels in Qatar. Likewise, as noted by veteran Israeli military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai, Israel “assesses that the elimination of al-Arouri will ultimately assist in advancing the [hostage] talks, as it increases military pressure on Hamas.” But to maximize the strategic benefits of taking out al-Arouri, Israel will have to follow up with similar strikes on top Hamas leaders in the coming weeks and months.
Photo: Council of the Federation, Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation / By CCA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons