History repeats itself with the assassination of a Hamas official

The violence ebbed and flowed. It involved targeted assassinations of Israeli and Palestinian representatives and leaders in third countries.

History repeats itself.

Palestinian airplane hijackings and attacks on Israeli civilians in Israel as well as on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad pockmarked the 1970s and 1980s.

The violence put the Palestinian issue on the world agenda. The violence erupted, and at times, was driven by fierce debate among Palestinian guerilla leaders on whether to drop maximalist demands for replacing the State of Israel with a (Palestinian-dominated) “secular democratic state” and strive for a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

It took the PLO 16 years to unambiguously accept Israel’s existence and end armed resistance against Israel in 1988.

The violence ebbed and flowed. It involved targeted assassinations of Israeli and Palestinian representatives and leaders in third countries.

The 1982 shooting in London of the Israeli ambassador to Britain, Shlomo Argov, sparked the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and forced Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation to decamp from Lebanon to Tunisia.

For much of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, Israel refused to engage with the PLO, employing the same language it uses today about Hamas.

To be sure, Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel upped the ante in scale and brutality.

It has, again fitting a historic pattern, empowered the most extreme ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious elements on Israel’s political spectrum, and sparked a war, involving indiscriminate bombing and punishment of a civilian population that Israel and Hamas will find difficult to live down.

While the jury is out, the war has not halted a torturous process within Hamas, much like the equally torturous evolution within the PLO.

Hamas’ internal debate became evident with the adoption of its 2017 amended charter and has continued despite the war. There is no guarantee that Hamas will follow in the footsteps of the PLO.

This week’s presumably Israeli killing in Beirut of senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri, a 57-year-old co-founder of the group’s military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and deputy head of its political bureau, raises the spectre of renewed tit-for-tat Palestinian and Israeli killings in third countries with one difference.

Mr. Al-Arouri, was widely viewed as a hardliner within Hamas, responsible for the group’s military infrastructure in Lebanon and operations on the West Bank, where its popularity is on the rise because of the Gaza war and its contribution to a potentially burgeoning armed insurgency.

Protests erupted on the West Bank, in response to calls by Hamas for “acts of resistance,” to protest the killing of Mr. Al-Arouri, a West Bank native, and several other Hamas operatives in the Beirut drone strike. A general strike closed down businesses.

In August, Mr. Al-Arouri telegraphed Hamas’s intentions long before the October 7 attack.

“A total war has become inevitable. We all consider it necessary… The resistance axis, the Palestinian people, and our nation, we want this total war. It is not (just) something we say in the media. We talk about it behind closed doors…. We are discussing together the different scenarios and possibilities,” Mr. Al-Arouri told Al Maydeen TV.

Last century’s tit-for-tat killings of Palestinians targeted primarily PLO moderates, not hardliners, and were perpetrated not only by Israel but also by Palestinian hardliners, like Abu Nidal, a renegade PLO operative.

Israel has repeatedly warned that it will hunt down Hamas operatives wherever they are.

In 2015, the US State Department offered up to $5 million for “information leading to the identification or location” of Mr. Al-Arouri.

Even so, Israel failed to notify the Biden administration of its plans to take out Mr. Al-Arouri, a sign it feared the US would oppose the operation because it risked expanding the war beyond carefully calibrated hostilities on the Lebanese-Israeli border and in the Red Sea as well as Israeli-Palestinian clashes in the West Bank.

Complicating the fallout of Mr. Al-Arouri’s death is the fact that Israel and Hamas are not the only players.

Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate for the killing in Lebanon of any representative of the Iranian-backed Axis of Resistance that includes Hamas, the Yemeni Houthis, and Iraqi militias alongside the Lebanese Shiite militia and the Islamic Republic.

Hezbollah has been waging a war against Israel since October 7 to tie Israeli forces down on the Jewish state’s northern border so that they cannot be deployed in Gaza without provoking an all-out conflict that could prove disastrous for Hezbollah and Lebanon.

Mr. Arouri’s killing puts Hezbollah between a rock and a hard place. It needs to find a way to be seen as living up to its vow while ensuring the hostilities do not spin out of control. Many in Lebanon fear Hamas could drag the bankrupt country into a war they do not want.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu threatened on a visit to troops on the Lebanese border that Israel would “single-handedly turn Beirut and South Lebanon, not far from here, into Gaza and Khan Yunis” if Hezbollah started an all-out war.

In a 90-minute speech to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the US assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Soleimani scheduled before Mr. Al-Arouri’s killing, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah referred only summarily to the Hamas leader’s death.

Much of his speech was an ode to Mr. Soleimani and Iran’s role in supporting militias in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen by funding, training, and arming them, enabling them to manufacture weaponry, and creating the Axis of Resistance.

Even so, Mr. Nasrallah insisted that Axis members independently took their own decisions and did not take orders from Iran.

Clad in a black cloak and turban, Mr. Nasrallah praised Hamas’ October 7 attack with no mention of the group’s targeting of civilians. He described the carnage rained on Gaza by Israel in response as “worth the sacrifice.”

The Hezbollah leader produced a laundry list of why Hamas was winning the war, including its success in putting the Palestinian plight back on the international agenda.

The war succeeded in “reviving the Palestinian cause, forcing nations across the world to look for solutions,” Mr. Nasrallah said, noting that Arab countries had been willing to establish formal relations with Israel without a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet, the Hezbollah leader seemed to buy time, by saying he would address the issue of Lebanon and Mr. Al-Arouri’s killing in greater detail in another speech on Friday during a ceremony for a Hezbollah operative who died recently.

At the same time, Mr. Nasrallah appeared to suggest that Hezbollah would retaliate for Mr. Al-Arouri’s killing on the group’s timeline, considering widespread Lebanese opposition to a war with Israel.

Mr. Nasrallah warned, referring to Mr. Al-Arouri’s killing in the Hezbollah stronghold in southern Beirut, that “yesterday’s crime is blatant, it is serious. This crime will not go unanswered. The battlefield is there, the nights are there.”

Yet, he also noted that “we are taking the situation in Lebanon into account.”

Tellingly, Mr. Nasrallah seemed to back hardliners in Hamas’ internal debate.

Arguing that Jewish attachment to the land was fabricated and that Israelis were fleeing the country because Israel was proven incapable of providing security, Mr. Nasrallah addressed Israelis directly, saying, “Here you don’t have a future. The land of Palestine is for the Palestinians.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.