The assassination of a top Hamas official in Beirut on Tuesday was welcomed by many in Israel as a necessary, even inevitable, step in the campaign to destroy Hamas that Israel has been waging since the terror group’s brutal Oct. 7 attacks.
But that mission is fraught with contradictions. The slain Hamas official, Saleh al-Arouri, was a key strategist and liaison with its Iranian sponsors, and analysts said his death was a blow to the group. It also appeared likely, however, to put on ice any talks between Israel and Hamas over freeing more hostages taken in the group’s Oct. 7 attacks, dealing yet another setback to families waiting desperately for their loved ones to come home.
Many of those families are increasingly skeptical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s promises to make the return of hostages a top priority in the war. As opinion polls indicate that Mr. Netanyahu’s popularity at home is plummeting over his government’s failure to prevent the Hamas attacks or swiftly bring back all the captives, among other divisive domestic issues, some analysts say that al-Arouri’s killing carries risks for Israel.
“A gamble” is how a column in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth labeled it on Wednesday. Israel has not taken responsibility for the strike that killed Mr. al-Arouri and several comrades, but officials with Hamas, Lebanon and the United States have said Israel was behind it.
“Of all the possible reactions Hamas may take, the most disconcerting is with regard to the hostages,” wrote the columnist, Nachum Barnea. “The argument that the assassination will soften Sinwar’s position is just a story we tell ourselves,” he wrote, referring to the Hamas leader, Yahya Sinwar, adding that the killing was likely to “delay, or even torpedo, the negotiations.”
Mr. Netanyahu met with representatives of hostage families on Tuesday evening, around the time that the strike took place, and told them efforts to release their loved ones were continuing. “The contacts are being held; they have not been cut off,” he said.
But Israel, well familiar with the seemingly endless cycle of attacks and counterattacks in the Middle East, is bracing for retribution.
Many residents who live along the northern border with Lebanon have already been displaced from their homes for months because of rocket fire by the armed group Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas with whom Mr. al-Arouri had worked closely. Now they must prepare for a possible intensification of hostilities that could prolong their displacement.
Even before the war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, had warned that any assassinations inside Lebanon would meet a strong response. He was speaking publicly again on Wednesday, an address that was scheduled before Mr. al-Arouri’s killing.
After the killing, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said in a televised briefing that Israeli forces were “on very high alert on all fronts, for defensive and offensive actions.” He emphasized that Israel was “focused on fighting Hamas,” in what some Israeli analysts interpreted as a suggestion that it did not seek a wider war with Hezbollah.
Israeli public support for destroying Hamas is broad but not unqualified: After almost three months of war in Gaza, and amid growing international pressure to limit the rising number of Palestinian civilian deaths, many Israelis are beginning to voice out loud questions about whether the goal is achievable, and whether the country could bear the toll it would take even if it were.
Most senior Hamas leaders within Gaza have eluded capture, and though Israel has begun pulling some troops out of the enclave in what appears to be the start of a shift toward a new stage of the war, few in the country were prepared for a conflict of this length and with such heavy casualties.