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03/01/2024 | Analysis: Killing of Hamas leader in Lebanon marks a new phase in Israel’s war

Joseph Fitsanakis

MIDDLE EAST OBSERVERS WERE hardly surprised by yesterday’s news of the apparent assassination of Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Lebanon.

 

Not only was al-Arouri a senior Hamas official, but he also headed the militant group’s contact team with Lebanese Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons. He was likely at the top of Israel’s permanent assassination list even prior to Hamas’ bloody assault on Israel last October 7. Yet, within the explosive content of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, Tuesday’s assassination signals the opening of a new and highly unpredictable phase in an already uncertain conflict.

The vague statements issued by Israeli officials in response to the news of al-Arouri’s assassination did little to dispel the broadly accepted view that Israel’s intelligence services were behind the killing. Headed by its external intelligence agency, the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence services have a long history of extrajudicial assassinations. In his seminal book Rise and Kill First, the Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman discusses in detail the history of these assassinations, which predate the postwar establishment of the state of Israel. Bergman’s data-rich research reveals that the Israeli intelligence services have performed approximately 2,700 extrajudicial assassinations in their history —more than any Western state.

Given such a prolific history of targeted killings, al-Arouri’s assassination in Beirut can be described as both expected and unremarkable. Indeed, Israeli officials have stated repeatedly since October 7 that Hamas’ senior leadership will be targeted worldwide. In a leaked recording that emerged last month, Ronen Bar, director of the Israeli Security Agency, was heard announcing to members of Israel’s Knesset that Hamas’ senior leadership would be targeted “in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Lebanon, in Turkey, in Qatar, everywhere”.

At the time the recorded conversation leaked, nobody thought that Bar, a seasoned intelligence officer, was bluffing. Indeed, the operational capabilities and reach of the Mossad are well understood by everyone in the Middle East. That al-Arouri was assassinated in southern Beirut’s Dahiyeh suburb is significant. An undisputed Hezbollah stronghold, Dahiyeh is tightly controlled by the Shiite militant group, which prides itself on ensuring the safety of its residents. Yesterday’s assassination at the very heart of Hezbollah’s lair was nothing short of a demonstration of the Mossad’s competency in special operations.

If Israel is truly intent on neutralizing the leadership of Hamas, Mossad’s competency will be increasingly tested in the coming months, as the Jewish state will have to strike repeatedly beyond its borders. This is because, unlike the beleaguered Gazans, who are currently experiencing the most destructive bombing campaign of the 21st century, most leaders of Hamas live in relative luxury in Doha, Ankara, Beirut, Damascus, and other Middle Eastern metropolitan centers. It is there, and not in the razed neighborhoods of Khan Yunis and Jabalia, that Israeli assassination teams will need to operate with increasing dexterity.

Yet, even when their attacks are successful in eliminating their intended targets, the operational signatures left behind by the Mossad teams will inevitably expose some of the agency’s tradecraft methods. They will also reveal the extent of its reach, and in some cases even its networks. Tuesday’s attack, for instance, revealed that Dahiyeh is not the fortified hideout it was believed to be. Other Hamas operatives will now take heed. Moreover, the use of a drone to kill al-Arouri has given Hamas and its allies an insight into one aspect of the Mossad’s assassination methodology, from which they will now seek to develop protections.

It should be noted that on the same day al-Arouri was killed, authorities in Turkey announced the arrests of no fewer than 34 people who are alleged to have been involved “in spying and planning abductions for Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency”. According to Turkish officials, 57 addresses were simultaneously raided in Istanbul and other Turkish cities, while security forces were still searching for 12 more suspects as of yesterday evening local time. This development is almost certainly an attempt by Turkey to pre-empt Israel’s preparations to strike on Turkish soil. In reporting on the arrests yesterday, the BBC reiterated a warning issued last month by Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that Israel would be “doomed to pay a heavy price” if it tried to assassinate members of Hamas on Turkish soil.

Tuesday’s assassination in southern Beirut demonstrates that Israel isn’t bluffing. The question is whether President Erdoğan is. A more critical question is whether Iran’s Foreign Ministry officials were bluffing yesterday, when they said that al-Arouri’s assassination would “undoubtedly ignite another surge in the veins of resistance and the motivation to fight”, not only in the Palestinian territories, but also in the region and “among all freedom-seekers worldwide”. The inescapable fact is that the more Israel strikes at Hamas targets abroad, the more difficult it will be for Qatari, Turkish and Lebanese decision-makers to ignore the war in Gaza. The long-feared regional escalation observers have been warning against appears a little more likely after Tuesday.

 

Intelnews.org (Estados Unidos)

 



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