Killing of senior Hamas leader in Lebanon stokes fears of Gaza war spreading beyond enclave

The destroyed Hamas’ office that was attacked by Israel on 02 January killing Palestinian leader Saleh al-Arouri and six others pictured from shattered glass in Beirut southern suburb.

Marwan Naamnai | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

The killing of senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri in Lebanon’s capital of Beirut has sparked fears that the war in Gaza could spread beyond the Palestinian enclave.

Al-Arouri, the deputy political head of Hamas, was killed Tuesday alongside six other members of the Palestinian militant group after his home in southern Beirut was reportedly targeted by a drone strike.

Lebanon has claimed Israel is responsible for the blast and accused Israel of trying to drag Beirut into a regional war.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the strike, while an advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “surgical” hit on Hamas, rather than an attack on Lebanon.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military has said it was “highly prepared for any scenario” after the assassination of al-Arouri.

Sanam Vakil, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, a British think tank, said Wednesday that the Beirut strike had certainly increased the risk of opening up another front in the Israel-Hamas war.

“This attack, which is believed to be attributed obviously to the Israeli government, could lead to a more decisive Hezbollah response,” Vakil told CNBC’s “Street Signs Europe.”

“And I think that is perhaps what the Israeli government is trying to achieve: To goad Hezbollah into a broader war but also to demonstrate that its intent to go after broader Hamas leadership everywhere is indeed being met with reality.”

Increased spillover risk after killing of senior Hamas leader in Lebanon, Chatham House says

Vakil said, however, that Hezbollah was unlikely to try to respond to the Beirut blast in a meaningful way, adding that the Lebanese militant group is “much more cautious as an entity.” The drone strike, she added, appeared to demonstrate Hezbollah’s weakness and Israel’s military intelligence.

“Looking through this attack, but more broadly, the aims of the Israeli government and the [Israeli Defense Forces] are to try and weaken all of the proxies around the region in order to reinforce Israel’s security after October 7th,” Vakil said.

A spokesperson for Israel’s government did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

The United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon on Wednesday said it is deeply concerned about a potential escalation of violence, Reuters reported, citing a spokesperson warning that it would have devastating consequences for both Israel and Lebanon.

What is Hezbollah?

The killing of al-Arouri comes almost three months after Israel launched a ground invasion and airstrike campaign in Gaza after Hamas’ shock attack on Oct. 7.

Hezbollah and armed forces in Israel have exchanged near daily cross-border fire since Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel, although the violence has so far been contained to the Israel-Lebanon border.

Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militant group in Lebanon, operates as both a political party and paramilitary group and is designated by the U.S. and Israel as a terrorist organization.

Deputy Chairman of the Movement’s Political Bureau Saleh Al-Arouri makes a speech after signing the reconciliation agreement to build a consensus with Palestinian Fatah movement leader Azzam Al-Ahmad (not seen) in Cairo, Egypt on October 12, 2017.

Ahmed Gamil | Anadolu | Getty Images

Benjamin H. Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, a foreign policy think tank based in Washington, D.C., said the killing of a top Hamas official in Lebanon makes the escalation of a simmering conflict with Hezbollah more likely.

“An Israel war with Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, risks drawing the United States into another war in the Middle East. That is a prospect we should strive to avoid. Israel should defend itself without direct U.S. participation,” Friedman said.

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“Israel has a right to target Hamas members abroad, and the United States has a right to defend its forces in the region,” Friedman continued. “Yet the flareups that threaten wider war for the United States confront us with the question of what U.S. interest is served by going to war for Israel, effectively on behalf of its war in Gaza.”

“We might even ask if the prospect of U.S. support against Hezbollah encourages Israeli belligerence,” Friedman said. “Hence the United States should be clear that support for Israel will not include a shooting war on its behalf,” he added.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Defense declined to comment.

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