In a Speech, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah Has Addressed the Killing of Hamas’s Saleh al-Arouri

Spot analysis from Carnegie scholars on events relating to the Middle East and North Africa.

What Happened?

In the aftermath of the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, much of Lebanon held its breath, worried that this would lead to a significant escalation in the conflict with Israel, which until now has been largely contained to the southern border area. Arouri was the deputy chief of Hamas’s Political Bureau and the head of Hamas in the West Bank.

On January 3, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah reacted publicly to the assassination and surprised observers in what he did not say. His speech did not differ significantly from previous ones since the start of the Gaza war, despite his more combative rhetoric. He focused on the inability of the international system, including the United Nations, to protect civilians and presented a unified vision for the pro-Iran armed militant groups operating in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While these groups were aligned with Tehran, he argued, they were also independent of it. Nasrallah did not threaten to expand the conflict with Israel, only to retaliate for Arouri’s killing at a time and place of Hezbollah’s choosing.

Why Is It Important?

The killing was significant for Hezbollah not so much for whom Arouri was, even if that was hardly negligible, but because of the location of the assassination. It was the first Israeli missile attack on Beirut’s southern suburbs since the end of the 2006 Lebanon war. Arouri, was a key member of an alliance of armed groups close to Iran, and was said to be the principal liaison between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon. But in that respect he was not more important than Radhi Mousavi, a senior member of the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), whom the Israelis assassinated in Damascus on December 25. Mousavi was described by some media outlets as the main coordinator between the Quds Force and the Syrian regime. Similarly, the Israelis killed another leading Hezbollah figure in an airstrike. He was Abbas Raad, the son of the party parliamentarian Mohammed Raad and second in command of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan force. The death of both men did not lead Hezbollah to alter its strategy of continuing to contain the scope of violence in the border conflict with Israel, so it was no surprise that Nasrallah did not promise a military escalation after Arouri’s killing.

However, by targeting Beirut’s southern suburbs, Israel signaled its continued willingness to pursue an escalatory trajectory that risks an expansion of the conflict beyond Gaza, which could transform it into a major regional and possibly a global conflagration. The geographical expansion of Israeli airstrikes certainly points in that direction. Over the past three months, Israel has pushed the envelope on the rules of engagement established in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon war and expanded the zone of conflict beyond the border area, hitting targets some 40 kilometers inside Lebanon. It has also killed dozens of civilians as well as journalists, with Human Rights Watch publishing a report indicating that the attacks against journalists may have been deliberate. The war has also caused the displacement of over 74,000 Lebanese citizens from border areas, while Israel has evacuated at least 70,000 Israelis from the north. Some U.S. officials have expressed concern that Israeli may try to use U.S. weapons shipped to Israel in a conflict with Lebanon.

What Are the Implications for the Future?

The tenor of Nasrallah’s speech reflected Hezbollah’s key dilemma, namely how to respond to the Arouri killing without pushing Lebanon into a much broader, more destructive conflict. Neither Hezbollah nor Iran has an interest in such an outcome. Both sides understand the profound impact that Hamas’s attacks on October 7 had on the Israeli psyche and on Israel’s military doctrine. They are especially concerned that Israel is not only seeking to transform the rules of engagement along its border with Lebanon but also insists on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which could compel Hezbollah to redeploy its forces away from the border and, therefore, weaken the party’s position in the country

Israel has engaged in a disproportionate onslaught against Gaza, with upwards of 22,000 dead Palestinians so far, and the obliteration of entire neighborhoods and communities. This has benefited from tacit acceptance from many influential countries close to Israel, including the United States and the United Kingdom. This means that Israeli actions remain unpredictable in Lebanon, especially with a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking to survive politically and dominate his internal political crisis through military actions elsewhere.

In this context, escalatory Israeli actions may continue unless there is a significant increase in U.S. pressure on Israel to restrain its actions in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is concerned that the trajectory of the Gaza conflict and any political settlement that diminishes Hamas’s role could shift Israel’s focus to Lebanon, entailing more systematic military engagement with Israel. Influential voices within Israel’s security and political establishment have been calling for precisely this. To prepare for this eventuality, the party is keeping its eye on the domestic Lebanese scene and seeking to further consolidate its position in the political system.

A significant development to watch is how the mission of the U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein will play out. Hochstein, who helped negotiate the maritime boundary between Lebanon and Israel, is scheduled to arrive in Israel today to help calm tensions along the Lebanese-Israeli border. There are indications that he plans to finalize the demarcation of Lebanon’s land borders with Israel and may also seek to contribute to unlocking Lebanon’s internal political deadlock over the election of a president. It will be important to see whether some kind of package deal can be worked out that satisfies Israel’s aim to maintain the security of its border population and Hezbollah’s refusal to surrender anything on what it considers to be its vital interests. If Hezbollah can secure the election of a president who reassures the party, this could facilitate its concessions in negotiations with Hochstein.

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