An apparent Israeli strike killed a top Hamas commander. How might it impact the Gaza conflict?

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FILE - People gather outside a damaged building following a massive explosion in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2024. The killing of a top Hamas commander in an apparent Israeli airstrike on a Beirut apartment has given Israel an important symbolic achievement in its 3-month-old war against the Islamic militant group. But history has shown that the benefits of such dramatic operations are often short lived, bringing on further violence and equally formidable replacements as leaders of militant groups.(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein, File)

TEL AVIV – The killing of a top Hamas commander in an apparent Israeli airstrike on a Beirut apartment has given Israel an important symbolic achievement in its 3-month-old war against the Islamic militant group.

But history has shown the benefits of such dramatic operations are often short-lived, bringing on further violence and equally formidable replacements as leaders of militant groups.

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The drone strike on Saleh Arouri, the deputy political head of Hamas and a founder of the group’s military wing, follows a long line of suspected Israeli killings of senior militant leaders over the years.

While Israel did not claim responsibility for Tuesday's blast, it had all the hallmarks of an Israeli attack. Both Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group immediately blamed Israel and could soon respond.

Here is a look at the strike and Israel's history of suspected killings of militants abroad:


A mysterious blast shook a Beirut neighborhood. Hamas officials confirmed the deaths of Arouri and six other Hamas members, including two military commanders.

A Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, said the attack appeared to have been carried out by a drone that fired missiles into the building, targeting one specific floor.

Israeli officials declined to comment. Israel has frequently used armed drones for precise targeting of militants in the West Bank and Gaza, including during the current war.

Israel had accused Arouri, 57, of masterminding attacks against it in the West Bank, where he was the group’s top commander. He also was believed to be a key figure in Hamas' relations with both Hezbollah and the group's Iranian patrons. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Arouri as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, offering $5 million for information about him.


Israel rarely takes responsibility for targeted assassinations or comments publicly on its forces' forays abroad. It took 25 years for the country to acknowledge its role in killing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s deputy, Khalil al-Wazir, known as Abu Jihad, in Tunisia in 1988.

The strike that killed Arouri came just over a week after another suspected Israeli airstrike outside of Damascus killed Seyed Razi Mousavi, a longtime adviser of the Iranian paramilitary Revolutionary Guard in Syria.

Some Israeli politicians were quick to praise Arouri's assassination.

Danny Danon, Israel’s former representative to the United Nations and a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, congratulated the security forces for the killing on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a member of Israel's Security Cabinet, stopped short of outright acknowledging Israel's involvement. He posted on social media a passage from the biblical book of Judges saying “so perish your enemies Israel."

Israel clearly stands to gain from such a strike amid its war against Hamas.

Arouri’s assassination was a tangible achievement to show Israelis still reeling from the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that triggered the war, when more than 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage in Gaza. Arouri was well known in Israel for his role in deadly attacks, especially in the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers that sparked the 2014 Gaza war.

“It’s important to prop up morale and show Israel that the security and intelligence system is working, because many Israelis lost faith in the security forces after Oct 7,” said Danny Orbach, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Still, some in Israel, especially relatives of the 129 hostages still held in Gaza, expressed anger that the assassination could endanger their family members or hostage negotiations.


Targeted assassinations can provide a "temporary advantage,” Orbach said, but do not often have a lasting impact because new leaders emerge.

Hezbollah's charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, for instance, took power after his predecessor was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 1992.

Orbach said an example of an impactful strike was the 2004 assassination of Hamas political leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi, just a month after the group's founder and spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin, was assassinated.

This quick succession of assassinations created a power vacuum in Hamas, leading to infighting and helping contribute to the end of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, in the early 2000s, said Harel Chorev, an expert on Palestinian affairs at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.

He said targeted assassinations are more effective in centralized organizations, where the loss of a strong, central leader upsets the whole organization. But Hamas is decentralized, with strong leaders in both its Gaza base and across the Middle East. Chorev said the removal of a figure like Arouri might have a short-term impact but is less critical to the group's survival.

“It’s really a question of: What is the pool of operatives that can replace a certain leader who’s been assassinated?” Chorev said.

Such killings are not unique to Israel. Russia is widely believed to be behind the killings of critics of President Vladimir Putin, and the U.S. has killed leaders of al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.

Among such killings was that of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the former head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, who was slain in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq in January 2020. Iran says twin bomb blasts on Wednesday killed at least 95 people at an event honoring Soleimani.


Arouri, the deputy of Hamas’ supreme political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, was known for his charisma and his networking ability.

He was a key figure in promoting the “Axis of Resistance,” the collection of Iran’s regional allies, including Hezbollah and Syria. Arouri was also a vital part of Hamas’ reconciliation with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2022, after Hamas initially backed the opposition during the Syrian civil war.

Arouri’s role as a bridge builder means his assassination will reverberate widely within Hamas, said military historian Orbach.

The most impactful assassinations aren’t necessarily the top leader, who will quickly be replaced, but leaders who are the most connected across the organization. Regional leaders or deputies such as Arouri have often spent years forging personal connections that are not easily replicated.

“Arouri was an especially attractive target because he controlled or brokered between disparate networks in the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Iran,” said Orbach.


Associated Press reporters Bassem Mroue, Abby Sewell, and Kareem Chehayeb contributed to this report.


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