Gaza war spreads to Beirut with killing of Hamas deputy leader

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People stand at a damaged building following an explosion, in what security sources say is an Israeli drone strike, at the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon January 2, 2024. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir Acquire Licensing Rights

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Summary

  • LATEST DEVELOPMENTS:
  • After killing, Israeli military spokesperson says forces remain focused on fighting Hamas
  • US denounces Israeli ministers’ statements on resettlement of Palestinians outside Gaza

BEIRUT/CAIRO/GAZA, Jan 3 (Reuters) – Israel killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in a drone strike in Lebanon’s capital Beirut on Tuesday, Lebanese and Palestinian security sources said, raising the potential risk of war in Gaza spreading well beyond the Palestinian enclave.

Arouri, 57, was the first senior Hamas political leader to be assassinated since Israel launched a shattering air and ground offensive against Gaza’s Hamas rulers almost three months ago after the group’s shock rampage into Israeli towns.

Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah group, a Hamas ally, has been exchanging near-daily fire with Israel across Lebanon’s southern border since the war in Gaza began in October.

Israel has long accused Arouri of lethal attacks on its citizens, but a Hamas official said he was also “at the heart of negotiations” conducted by Qatar and Egypt over the outcome of the Gaza war and the release of Hamas-held Israeli hostages.

Israel neither confirmed nor denied carrying out the killing, but its military spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said Israeli forces were in a high state of readiness and prepared for any scenario.

“The most important thing to say tonight is that we are focused and remain focused on fighting Hamas,” he said when asked by a reporter about the reports of Arouri’s killing.

In Washington, the State Department denounced as “inflammatory and irresponsible” statements by Israeli cabinet ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.

Smotrich, one of the senior figures in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, on Sunday called for Palestinian residents to leave the besieged strip, making way for Israelis who could “make the desert bloom.”

Such statements underscore fears among some in the Arab world that Israel wants to drive Palestinians out of land where they envision a future state, repeating the mass dispossession of Palestinians when Israel was created in 1948.

‘I AM WAITING FOR MARTYRDOM,’ AROURI HAD SAID

Israel had accused Arouri, a co-founder of the Hamas’ military wing, the Izz-el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades, of ordering and supervising Hamas attacks in the Israeli-occupied West Bank for years.

“I am waiting for martyrdom (death) and I think I have lived too long,” Arouri said in August 2023, alluding to Israeli threats to eliminate Hamas leaders whether in Gaza or abroad.

Nasser Kanaani, spokesperson for the foreign ministry of Iran, a major supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, said Arouri’s killing would “undoubtedly ignite another surge in the veins of resistance and the motivation to fight against the Zionist occupiers, not only in Palestine but also in the region and among all freedom-seekers worldwide.”

In a televised speech in August, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had warned Israel against carrying out any assassinations on Lebanese soil, vowing a “severe reaction.”

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