Saleh al-Arouri: Thousands attend Hamas deputy leader’s funeral in Beirut
Thousands of people have attended the funeral in Beirut of Saleh al-Arouri, the top Hamas leader assassinated in a suspected Israeli attack in the Lebanese capital two days ago.
Crowds carried banners with his picture and waved Palestinian and Hamas flags through the streets amid the sound of music, prayers and heavy gunfire, while Hamas officials vowed to retaliate.
The assassination of Arouri was a blow for Hamas – he was a deputy Hamas leader and a key figure in the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the group’s armed wing – and renewed fears of a wider war in the region. It also hit its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed movement, as it struck Dahiyeh, a suburb of the city that is a stronghold for the group.
In Lebanon, again, the focus is on what Hassan Nasrallah, the influential Hezbollah leader, will decide to do.
Less than 24 hours after the attack, he addressed his followers, in a speech that had been scheduled to commemorate the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani, killed in a US drone strike four years ago. He could not ignore what had just happened in his own backyard.
As usual, Nasrallah spoke from an undisclosed location, and described Arouri’s assassination as a “flagrant Israeli aggression” that would not go unpunished. “If the enemy considers waging a war against Lebanon, our battle will be without boundaries or rules,” he said.
But, crucially, there was no open threat to attack Israel, which has neither confirmed or denied involvement in the killing, nor any indication of how Hezbollah might act.
One of Hezbollah’s aims is the destruction of Israel, which sees the group as a more formidable enemy than Hamas. Hezbollah has a vast arsenal of weapons including precision-guided missiles that can strike deep into Israeli territory, as well as tens of thousands of well-trained, battle-hardened fighters.
Since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October, Hezbollah has been attacking positions in northern Israel almost every day, describing the actions as its support for the Palestinian group. The Israeli military has retaliated, but so far, the violence has been largely contained to areas along the Lebanon-Israel border.
Hezbollah has calculated its actions to prevent a full-scale war with Israel, and there is no indication this strategy is likely to change. Many here still remember the destruction caused by the month-long conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and with Lebanon suffering a massive economic crisis, there is virtually no public support for any military confrontation.
Israeli authorities have warned Hezbollah against escalating the conflict. Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has in the past said Israel’s military could do to Beirut what it had done to Gaza.
On Thursday, as he met US envoy Amos Hochstein in Tel Aviv, Mr Gallant reaffirmed his country’s determination to change the security situation in northern Israel, to allow the return of residents evacuated due to constant attacks. But, he said, there was a “short window of time for diplomatic understandings, which we prefer”.
Some senior Israeli officials, however, have supported further action against Hezbollah to eliminate the threat posed by the group.
Nasrallah is expected to address his supporters again on Friday. His latest speech may be an indication that for whatever reason, he wants to avoid triggering a bigger conflict with Israel. However, he needs to be seen to be giving a response to the attack in Beirut. But any reaction is likely to be calibrated to avoid strong retaliation from Israel, and the possibility of another catastrophic conflict for Lebanon.