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Aruri’s killing sends menacing message to Hamas chiefs, may hamper truce effort

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CAIRO: The killing of Hamas’s deputy chief in Lebanon removes a big name from Israel’s most-wanted list, but could drive the Palestinian group’s exiled leaders deeper into hiding, hampering efforts to negotiate further Gaza ceasefires and prisoner releases.

Hamas deputy leader Saleh Al Aruri was struck down by a drone in the southern suburbs of Beirut on Tuesday.

Israel has not confirmed or denied a role, but the attack came a month after Israeli broadcaster Kan aired a recording of the head of domestic security agency Shin Bet vowing to hunt down Hamas in Lebanon, Turkiye and Qatar even if it took years.

On Wednesday, Israel’s Mossad spy chief David Barnea said he was committed to “settling the score” with Hamas, adding: “Let every Arab mother know that if her son took part, directly or indirectly, in the Oct 7 massacre, his blood is forfeit.”

Aruri ‘s killing, said Ashraf Abouelhoul, managing editor of Egypt’s Al Ahram daily and an expert in Palestinian affairs, “may push Hamas to harden its stance so it doesn’t look as if it is bowing under pressures or threats of more assassination”.

The stakes are high both for the two million Palestinians trying to survive Israeli bombardment in Gaza and for Israeli prisoners held there by Hamas.

Hamas negotiators, including Aruri, had been in Qatar-mediated talks with Israel over a possible further ceasefire and prospects for further release of Israeli prisoners.

As recently as the past week the two sides were having discussions with Qatari mediators on a truce and prisoners, a source familiar with the talks said, indicating a period when the Aruri strike may have been in final stages of preparation.

Security concerns may now complicate matters, analysts said.

Mohanad Hage Ali, deputy director for research at the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said that in recent years Palestinian groups operating in Lebanon had become used to a measure of security. Hamas needed to be far more cautious now, he added.

‘Open battle’

Such groups, he said, had been “happy with the arrangements in place, some quiet and stability, and some sort of deterrence by Hezbollah. This has flown out of the window, given Oct 7 and the conflict in south Lebanon and how things are going forward”.

Aruri, 57, was the first senior Hamas political leader to be assassinated outside the Palestinian territories since Israel vowed to eliminate the group following its Oct 7 raid.

The loss of a top figure could now prompt Hamas to take a tougher line against Israel, currently waging a shattering air and ground offensive against the group, analysts said.

The extent of any change in Hamas’s stance remains unclear.

Hussam Badran, a Hamas political leader in exile, reacted defiantly to Aruri ’s death by saying: “We tell the criminal occupation (Israel) that the battle between us and them is open.”

However, Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said that while Aruri ‘s death “will have its consequences”, Hamas’s position remained that provided Israel fully stopped its attacks, the group would be open to talks “on all other issues”.

Aruri ‘s assassination may also widen the Gaza crisis to new territory in Lebanon, marking the first strike on Beirut after nearly three months of cross-border shelling. Hezbollah will come under pressure to exact revenge for its ally, especially since he was killed in the group’s Beirut stronghold Dahiya, the analysts said.

Three Iranian insiders closely connected to Tehran’s hardline establishment said the killing had raised concerns among Tehran’s leaders that Israel could be trying to widen the conflict by dragging in Iran.

“His assassination shocked everyone in Tehran. However, it does not mean that Tehran will get involved in the conflict directly, though apparently this is the main goal of the Zionist regime’s leaders,” said one of the insiders.

Within hours of the killing, however, an Israeli official signalled Israel wanted to avoid escalation, even as he insisted Israel had not taken responsibility for the attack.

Caution in Lebanon

Speaking to MSNBC, the official, Mark Regev, an adviser to Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, described the attack as a “surgical strike against Hamas leadership” and not an attack on the Lebanese state or Hezbollah.

Whatever its eventual impact on regional stability, Aruri’s death is highly likely to make other Hamas leaders more cautious about their whereabouts. In Gaza, no Hamas leader has been seen since the Oct 7 raid. Many are believed to be hiding in deep underground tunnels.

For decades, the long arm of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service has encouraged Palestinian opponents to live in the shadows to avoid assassination.

Tel Aviv responded to the 1972 killing of 11 Israeli Olympic team members at the Munich games with an assassination campaign against operatives and organisers of the Black September Palestinian group over several years and in several countries.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal survived a 1997 assassination attempt by Israeli Mossad agents in Jordan. In 2010, suspected Israeli assassins killed Hamas commander Mahmoud Al Mabhouh in a Dubai hotel.

In Lebanon, some Hamas officials have appeared regularly in recent months to deliver press statements. But Aruri and others more involved in strategic affairs have avoided the limelight.

Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal are expected to stay in Turkiye, a heavyweight regional power, and Qatar, an active diplomatic player, two countries Israel will not want to antagonise.

Turkiye has repeatedly warned Israel to stay away from Hamas members on Turkish soil.

Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2024


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