• Associated Press

A Hamas Official Killed in a Beirut Strike Had Been on Israel’s Hit List for Years

Mohammad Austaz/Hamas Media Office via AP, File
This photo released by the Hamas Media Office shows deputy Saleh Arouri upon his arrival in in Gaza City from Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018.

BEIRUT (AP) — Saleh Arouri, the deputy political head of Hamas and a founder of the group’s military wing, had been in Israel’s sights for years before he was killed in a drone strike in a southern suburb of Beirut on Tuesday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had threatened to kill him even before Hamas carried out its deadly surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 7, sparking the ongoing brutal war in Gaza.

Israel had accused Arouri, 57, of masterminding attacks against it in the West Bank, where he was the group’s top commander. In 2015, the U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Arouri as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist offering $5 million for information about him.

Asked about assassination threats against him in an interview with Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen in August, Arouri said, “It is not strange for us for the commanders and cadres of the movement to be martyred.”

“I never expected to reach this age, so I am living on borrowed time,” he said.

In the same interview, he threatened that in case of a comprehensive war, “Israel will suffer a defeat unprecedented in history.”

Born in the town of Aroura in the occupied West Bank, Arouri joined Hamas and eventually went into exile, first to Damascus, where the Syrian government was a strong supporter of the group. But he left in 2011 when Hamas split with President Bashar Assad, siding with the opposition in Syria’s civil war.

He went on to Turkey, but had to leave there in 2018 in an exodus of Hamas officials after Ankara improved its relations with Israel and after Qatar — a backer of the Palestinian militant group — was hit by a boycott led by its rival Saudi Arabia and other nations in the region.

Arriving in Beirut, Arouri made few public appearances but helped to pull Hamas closer to Hezbollah’s orbit. Hamas was able to build up its political and military presence in Lebanon — but under careful control by Hezbollah.

Arouri also became a key figure in the group’s reconciliation with Assad, and he proudly proclaimed himself part of the “Axis of Resistance,” the collection of Iran’s regional allies, including Hezbollah and Syria,

In early September, Arouri held a meeting with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that was attended by Ziad Nakhaleh, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, during which they discussed the situation in the Palestinian territories. A similar meeting was convened after the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October.

Since Oct. 7, Arouri kept a low profile while others in the Hamas political leadership made frequent public appearances in Beirut, including in near-daily press conferences.

He seems to have been hiding in plain sight. He was killed in a strike on an apartment building in the middle of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a political and security stronghold of Hezbollah but also a densely populated urban area.

Hamas officials confirmed Arouri’s death, along with 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.

The explosion shook the surrounding area, shattering windows in neighboring buildings and causing a fire on the street in the Musharafieh district. Residents of the area rushed to the streets around the targeted building, digging through rubble and broken glass looking for survivors or bodies.

Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency blamed an Israeli drone. Israeli officials declined to comment.

An Associated Press photographer at the scene described seeing at least two bodies and other body parts scattered in the street. Hezbollah security members fired in the air to disperse the crowd gathered around the building.

A witness at the scene, Abbas Ghannam, told the AP that he had heard the sound of a drone before the explosion.

“It was not a military jet, it was a drone. It has a low sound,” he said.

If Israel was behind the strike, it would be its first attack on Beirut since the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006.

It could mark a major escalation in the conflict in Lebanon. After Netanyahu’s previous threats to Arouri, Nasrallah warned Israel not to target any Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian or Iranian officials in Lebanon saying that would lead to “harsh retaliation” by the group.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the targeting of Arouri “in the heart of the southern suburbs of Beirut” constituted “a serious attack on Lebanon, its people, its security, sovereignty and resistance.”

“We affirm that this crime will never pass without response and punishment,” it said.

Nasrallah is set to speak Wednesday, on the anniversary of the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani said Tuesday that the killing of Arouri “once again proved that straw foundation of Zionists is based on assassination and crime,” Iranian media reported. He called it a sign of Israel’s “heavy defeat” before Palestinian militant groups in the war in Gaza.