Assassination of Hamas Official in Lebanon Raises Risk of Israel’s War on Gaza Expanding Across Region

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Fears of a regional war in the Middle East are growing after a top Hamas official was assassinated in a Beirut, Lebanon, suburb Tuesday. Hamas’s deputy leader, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in a suspected Israeli drone strike that also killed, it’s believed, six other Hamas members. Al-Arouri was the chief of Hamas’s operations in the occupied West Bank, also credited with strengthening ties between Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.

While Israel has not claimed responsibility for the assassination, one prominent Israeli lawmaker congratulated the Mossad and Shin Bet on social media. An Israeli army spokesperson said the military is in a, quote, “very high state of readiness in all arenas, in defense and offense,” unquote.

At the United Nations, a spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general urged nations to show restraint.

FLORENCIA SOTO NINO: Because of the escalating tensions and the fragility of the situation in the region, we are calling for maximum restraint from all parties. We don’t want any — any rash actions that could trigger further violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati condemned the drone strike, warning the attack, quote, “aims to draw Lebanon into a new phase of confrontations,” unquote.

The assassination came a day before the fourth anniversary of the U.S. assassination of the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a U.S. drone strike inside Iraq under the Trump administration January 3rd, 2020. Earlier today, at least 73 people were killed in a pair of bomb blasts in Iran near Soleimani’s tomb during an event marking his death. A hundred seventy-three, at least, were injured in the blast, which local officials describe as a terrorist act.

We’re joined right now by Mouin Rabbani. He is Middle East analyst, co-editor of Jadaliyya and host of the Connections podcast. He was previously a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group. His latest piece for Mondoweiss is headlined “The long history of Zionist proposals to ethnically cleanse the Gaza Strip.”

We’re going to begin with what’s happened in Lebanon and the significance of it. Thanks so much for being with us, Mouin Rabbani.

MOUIN RABBANI: Good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can talk about the assassination of the Hamas leader and what exactly this means, who al-Arouri is — was?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, Saleh al-Arouri was a West Bank founder of the military wing of Hamas, the Qassam, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He spent many years in Israeli prisons and was then deported, most recently was living in Beirut, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, effectively under Hezbollah protection. He was a key liaison between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and also with the Iranian government. He’s said to have been close with Yahya Sinwar and Mohammed Deif, respectively, the political and military leaders of Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the architects of the Hamas attacks of October 7th.

So, I think this assassination is significant in two respects. First of all, that Israel has managed to assassinate the senior leader of Hamas, and measured against their failure to really achieve anything of military significance in the Gaza Strip over the course of the last three months, this can be considered a significant achievement for them, although I think its impact on Hamas as an organization, apart from a serious blow to their morale, I don’t think there will be much consequence.

The second and perhaps more important is that Hezbollah has clearly identified any such act by Israel on Lebanese territory, and particularly in the capital Beirut, as a redline to which Hezbollah will respond with a significant escalation. And although Hezbollah is known to be very strategic in its actions and not to be impulsive in its reactions, I think a response is inevitable. And the question people are asking now is whether it will respond in a way that maintains the kind of controlled escalatory ladder between Hezbollah and Israel or whether Israel’s assassination has now set in motion a process that will lead to full-scale war, not only between Israel and Lebanon, but perhaps also a wider regional conflict.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know about the others who were killed in this attack?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, seven people in all were assassinated yesterday. In addition to Arouri, there were two commanders of the Qassam Brigades, the Hamas military wing, in addition to four other Hamas cadres. It’s quite clear that Arouri was the key target.

And I think one thing that requires explanation from Hamas’s side is how these seven people were meeting in a Hamas office in Beirut at a time when it was very clear that Arouri was wanted, not only by Israel, but also by the United States, which approximately a decade ago put a price on his head, and why they didn’t take greater precautions in terms of operational security, that allowed Israel to book this achievement. And some are even, you know, describing it as an own goal by Hamas, at a time when it is denying Israel any significant military achievements in the Gaza Strip.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what does this mean for a wider regional, perhaps, war? I mean, you have, I think, privately, the U.S. has been reaching out to leadership in Lebanon. This then takes place, not clear what the U.S. knowledge of this was. You have — at the time of this broadcast, Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has not yet spoken, but he’s expected to give a major address. The significance of this attack, on the killing of the Hamas — some of the Hamas leadership?

MOUIN RABBANI: Well, I think what many analysts in the region are concluding is that Israel clearly would like to see greater regional escalation, and that a key reason it would like to see this escalation is because it knows that it will enjoy the support and, eventually perhaps, the participation of the United States in that escalation. To be clear, Washington has indicated to Israel that one of its main priorities is to prevent precisely the kind of regional escalation that we may now be about to witness. But Israel, I think, also understands that although it is acting in contradiction to U.S. policy preferences, that it can essentially do as it pleases, because, apart from a potential verbal slap on the wrist, there will be no consequences from either the United States or from key European governments, and so, therefore, it can continue on this path.

And you mentioned the terrorist attack in Kerman, in Iran, today near the grave of Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force, who was assassinated by the United States. And I think — ultimately, I think Israel’s ideal situation would be one in which it is able to draw the United States into a direct confrontation with Iran. I don’t think it’s a likely scenario at this point, but it’s one that’s becoming increasingly plausible as we see intensified genocide, not only in Gaza, but also these kinds of greater escalations in Lebanon, in the Red Sea, in Yemen, and in Iraq, in Syria, and now potentially elsewhere, as well. So, I think a regional war is very much on the cards. It’s by no means a certainty. But I do think the confidence Israel has that it can do as it pleases and not suffer any consequences for any of its actions is the key variable here.

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