Many Israelis hailed the killing of a senior Hamas official in Beirut as a necessary, even inevitable, step in the campaign to destroy Hamas that Israel has been waging since the terror group’s brutal October 7 attacks.
But some analysts say Tuesday’s assassination of official Saleh al-Arouri carries risks for Israel, and the benefits are unclear. The assassination appears likely to freeze any negotiations between Israel and Hamas over the release of other hostages taken on October 7, causing a further setback to families desperately awaiting the return of their loved ones.
Although the death of Mr. al-Arouri, a key strategist and liaison to Hamas’s Iranian sponsors, was a blow to the group, analysts say it has already rebounded. And the killing fuels tensions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, home of Hezbollah, another Iran-backed group that has waged war against Israel. Frequent rocket fire from Hezbollah has forced the evacuation of border communities, and the group has warned that any assassinations in Lebanon would draw a tough response.
Despite this, members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government welcomed the assassination and his show of force. “Thus your enemies will perish, Israel,” Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right finance minister, wrote on social media, quoting the Old Testament.
Danny Danon, an MP from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, posted: “All those involved in the October massacre should know that we will contact them and settle their scores.” »
Israel has not taken responsibility for the attack that killed Mr. al-Arouri and several comrades, but officials from Hamas, Lebanon and the United States have said Israel was behind the strike, which Israelis seemed to take it for granted.
On Wednesday, a State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, said at a daily press briefing that the United States had not been warned of the strike. “We continue to believe that it is not in Hezbollah’s interests, just as it is not in Israel’s interests, to escalate this conflict in any way,” he said. -he declares.
Given the multiple risks and unclear benefits, Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister, questioned why the decision was made to kill Mr. al-Arouri now. Mr. al-Arouri’s focus has always been the West Bank, not Gaza, he said.
“Was he that important?” I’m not so sure,” Mr. Olmert said. “There is reason to ask this question. Was it urgent? Was it important to do this now? And was it more important than other things?
Many hostage families are increasingly skeptical of Mr. Netanyahu’s promises to make the return of captives a top priority of the war, and fear they will be murdered or mistreated in retaliation for the assassination.
“Of course it doesn’t help, it hurts,” said Lior Peri, whose 79-year-old father Chaim was kidnapped from Kibbutz Nir Oz. “I don’t know who is in charge and who gives the order, but they certainly don’t think about the hostages.”
“A gamble,” is how a columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth called Wednesday’s killing.
“Of all the possible Hamas reactions, the most disconcerting concerns the hostages,” wrote columnist Nachum Barnea. “The argument that the assassination would weaken Sinwar’s position is just a story we tell ourselves,” he wrote, referring to Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, adding that the assassination was likely to “delay, or even torpedo, the negotiations” for their release. release.
Mr. Netanyahu met with representatives of the hostages’ families on Tuesday evening, just as the strike took place, and told them that efforts to free their loved ones were continuing. “Contacts are being held; they weren’t cut,” he said.
Israel, familiar with the seemingly endless cycle of attacks and counterattacks in the Middle East, is preparing for retaliation.
Many residents living along the northern border with Lebanon have already been displaced from their homes for months by rocket fire from Hezbollah, with whom Mr. al-Arouri had worked closely.
After the killing, Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said in a televised press briefing that Israeli forces were “on very high alert on all fronts, for actions defensive and offensive. He stressed that Israel was “focused on fighting Hamas,” which some Israeli analysts interpreted as a suggestion that it was not seeking a broader war with Hezbollah.
Israeli public support for the destruction of Hamas is broad but not unqualified: after almost three months of war in Gaza, and amid growing international pressure to limit the growing number of Palestinian civilian deaths, many Israelis are beginning to express aloud questions about whether the goal is realistic and whether the country would be able to afford the price of achieving it.
Most of Hamas’s senior leaders in Gaza have escaped capture, and although Israel has begun to withdraw some troops from the enclave in what appears to be the start of a shift toward a new stage of the war, few are those in the country who were prepared for a conflict of this length and with such heavy losses.
Michael Crowley reports contributed.