top of page

The Killing of Deputy Hamas Chief Saleh al-Arouri and its Consequences for the Middle East

Verena Youssef | Middle East Fellow

Saleh al-Arouri at Russia-Hamas meeting. Image credit: Federation Council via Wikimedia Commons.

On the 2nd of January 2024, deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri was assassinated by a drone attack in the Beirut suburb of Dahieh. The assassination claimed the lives of six others: four Hamas members and two leaders of Hamas’ military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades (IQB). 


Shortly after the killing, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh blamed Israel for Arouri’s “cowardly assassination”. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also echoed Hamas’ allegations, condemning the "flagrant Israeli aggression". Israel, on the other hand, 

did not confirm or deny the attack, leaving many confused.


While speculations are at an all-time high, there is no doubt that the perpetrator’s identity is capable of moulding the trajectory of this volatile conflict. If Israel is found to be the perpetrator, its actions would not only undermine its legal credibility but also jeopardise the sovereignty of neighbouring countries. On the other hand, if an alternative actor is behind the attack, a feared proxy war will set off alarm bells across the region, escalating concerns of hidden armed actors on the ground. 

A threat to Israel’s claims of self-defence 


Since the Hamas attacks of October 7, Israel has labelled its military retaliation as a “self-defence” campaign. Repeatedly, it has clarified that it is waging a war against Hamas, and not the Palestinian people. However, with the killing of 28,000 Palestinians and an onslaught of alleged indiscriminate attacks, many have criticised Israel’s characterisation. 


Without a doubt, the attack against Hamas leaders in Beirut demonstrated profound precision. It successfully targeted a single building within a heavily populated town, without causing mass civilian losses. Considering the IDF’s ongoing indiscriminate attacks against populated schools, hospitals and residential buildings, which it claims are necessary due to Hamas using civilians as human shields, this type of targeted attack would be rare for the IDF. 


If Israel is found to be behind al-Arouri’s assassination, this could have significant legal implications in the country’s fight against genocidal allegations in the International Court of Justice (ICJ). During the second ICJ public sitting, Israel asserted its right to self-defence, claiming that it holds a “responsibility to protect its citizens”. The country further submitted that if its self-defence campaign “against an enemy hiding behind civilians” is recognised as genocide, “an inevitable tension will be created between the Genocide Convention and states defending themselves against…terrorist organisations”. The evident military precision of the Beirut attacks could seriously threaten this self-defence claim, with the juxtaposition between the precise attack and the IDF’s indiscriminate campaign in Gaza highlighting Israel’s intricate military capacity, capable of solely targeting “an enemy hiding behind civilians'' without mass casualties. In turn, damage to the country’s legal credibility could threaten the political ties with its allies and military funders. 


A threat to neighbours


Outside the courtroom, Israel’s suspected involvement is threatening the sovereignty of its neighbours, heightening regional tensions. In Lebanon—a country which fears another Hezbollah-Israel conflict—Nasrallah did not shy away from televising Hezbollah’s rage after the attack and their declaration that they would not remain silent. Hezbollah’s threats have raised concerns of further instability within the country, which is already facing a liquidity crisis and political turmoil that has left the country without a president.


At the World Economic Forum in Davos, for example, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that a “full-fledged confrontation" between Israel and Lebanon would serve as a “total disaster”, with a Hezbollah-Israeli conflict exacerbating Lebanon’s existing humanitarian disaster. 


Egypt is also feeling the heat, with the country already a victim of drone attacks during the conflict. The shared Rafah border with Palestine makes the country vulnerable to similar threats of sovereignty. This tension is heightened by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks regarding demilitarisation through full-control of the Gaza-Egypt border zone, expressed days before the assassination. In response, the Head of Egypt's State Information Service (SIS), Diaa Rashwan, sent a clear message that Egypt is capable of "defending its interests and sovereignty over its land and borders” from “extremist Israeli leaders who seek to drag the region into a state of conflict and instability”, showcasing the country’s strong refusal towards a spillover.  


An alternative actor

The uncertainty of the attacks mean that the prospects of a secondary actor cannot be ruled out. While official sources are yet to identify another potential perpetrator, the Middle East is no stranger to the phenomenon of proxy wars, as evidenced by conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 


This conflict is already attracting external actors with conflicting interests who have historically aided and armed non-state actors and insurgents within the Middle East. The ability of opposing foreign powers to empower on-the-ground actors has fostered the optimum environment for perpetrators to remain undetected. While an alternative actor has not been revealed, its mere possibility must be acknowledged to prevent the exacerbation of the volatile region. 



A region on standby


Without a doubt, al-Arouri’s assassination leaves an aura of uncertainty. Israel's suspected involvement has put the country in an uncomfortable position, as it struggles to maintain its claims of self-defence on the international stage. Neighbouring countries are also feeling the heat, as they fear a spillover from Gaza and a regional escalation of the conflict. The lack of clarity on the perpetrator and the potential involvement of alternative actors has opened a Pandora’s box, leaving the region on standby.

Verena Youssef is the Middle East Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Verena is a final year Law/Arts student, set to complete her studies early this year. She has a strong passion for international law and is particularly interested in Middle Eastern policy.  

A proud Egyptian/Australian, Verena enjoys applying her degree in a manner that increases education about the flourishing region.



bottom of page