By James M. Dorsey
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The question is not if but when Gaza-related violence will spill onto the streets of European and American cities.
This week’s killing in Beirut of Hamas executive Saleh al-Arouri significantly enhanced the threat posed by Hamas, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and jihadists.
Adding to the increased threat of Gaza-related violence spilling into other parts of or beyond the Middle East, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, warned for the second time in a week that Hezbollah would retaliate.
“We’ll choose the right place and the right time, but the field will respond,” Mr. Nasrallah said on Friday.
At the same time, Mr. Nasrallah, in an earlier speech, kept the door open for talks between the Lebanese and Israeli governments on resolving long-standing border disputes. However, the Hezbollah leader insisted such talks would only be possible once the war in Gaza ends.
Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate for the killing in Lebanon of any representative of the Iranian-backed Axis of Resistance that includes Hamas, the Yemeni Houthis, and Iraqi militias alongside the Lebanese Shiite militia and the Islamic Republic.
Restrained by not wanting to drag bankrupt Lebanon into a full-fledged war, Hezbollah could opt for a retaliation far from the Israeli-Lebanese border.
That response was not precluded by the firing on Saturday of 62 rockets at an Israeli observation post in what Hezbollah called a “preliminary response” to the Al-Arouri killing. The attack appeared calibrated to keep hostilities with Israelis contained.
However, in a possible indication of further things to come, Mr. Nasrallah’s representative to Iraq, Mohammad Hussein Al-Kawtharani, returned to Baghdad reportedly to coordinate attacks on US targets in Iraq with Iranian-backed Iraqi militias.
A US Treasury-designated global terrorist, Mr. Al-Kawtharani has a US$10 million bounty on his head.
Mr. Al-Kawtharani’s return coincided with the US killing of an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia leader in retaliation for recent attacks on American personnel and Iraqi steps to remove the U.S.-led international military coalition against the Islamic State from the country.
Widely viewed as a hardliner within Hamas, Mr. Al-Arouri grew close to Mr. Nasrallah after the Hamas official arrived in Lebanon at a time when the group’s relations with Hezbollah were strained because of Lebanese Shiite support for President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Mr. Nasrallah “turned (Mr. Al-Arouri) into a power card within Hamas but in Nasrallah’s hand… Some even say that Arouri was a Hezbollah hawk within Hamas,” said a source close to Hezbollah.
Addressing Israelis directly in a speech earlier this week, Mr. Nasrallah, was unequivocal in his call for replacing Israel with a Palestinian state rather than an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.
“Here you (Israelis) don’t have a future. The land of Palestine is for the Palestinians,” Mr. Nasrallah said.
From Hamas’ perspective, responding to Mr. Al-Arouri’s killing by striking abroad at Israeli embassies, diplomatic facilities and representatives is its best option. Hamas is unlikely to see a rocket barrage fired from Gaza toward Israeli towns and cities, most of which are intercepted by Israeli air defense, as a sufficient response.
Similarly, Hamas, three months into the war, is not well positioned to successfully target Israeli government offices and officials in Israel.
Raising the stakes, the Islamic State this week called for lone wolf attacks on civilian targets in Europe and the United States, including churches and synagogues.
Referring to past Islamic State operations and lone wolf attacks in multiple European cities, the group’s spokesman, Abu Ḥudhayfah Al-Ansari, called on Muslims in the West in a 67-minute audio message “to renew your activity and revive your blessed operations in the heart of the homes of Jews and Christians…. Chase your prey from Jews, Christians, and their allies, in the streets and the roads of America, Europe, and the world. Raid their homes, kill them, and torture them by every means you can.”
“Blow them up with explosives, burn them with incendiary bombs, shoot them with bullets, slaughter their necks with knives, and run them over with buses… Do not differentiate between an infidel civilian or military, as they are all infidels, and they should be judged the same way… Aim for an easy target before the difficult ones, and for civilian targets before military ones, and religious sites such as synagogues and churches, before anything else,” Mr. Al-Ansari said.
Mr. Al-Ansari issued the call a day after the group claimed responsibility for two explosions in the Iranian city of Kerman that killed at least 89 people.
Mr. Al-Ansari appeared to justify the bombings by denouncing Hamas’ alliance with Iran as a “sin” and denouncing the 1979 Iranian revolution as an “apostate revolution.”
The Sunni Muslim Islamic State has made attacks on Shiites, who it views as polytheists, one of its hallmarks. In addition, the group is angered by Iranian suggestions that the Islamic Republic will accept a two-state resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict if that was the Palestinians’ choice.
Mr. Al-Ansari accused Hamas and its archrival, President Mahmoud Abba’s Palestine Authority and Al Fatah movement, as well as a United Arab Emirates-backed former Gaza security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, of being US and/or Iranian proxies.
The spokesman insisted that “the battle with the Jews is not a religious patriotic or nationalistic battle. It is a battle not because of the land, soil, or borders. Rather, it is a battle that derives its legitimacy from the Quran and Sunnah,” Prophet Mohammed’s deeds and sayings, Mr. Al-Ansari said.
An expanded spree of tit-for-tat Israeli Palestinian targeted killings in third countries is likely to resemble a similar spree in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, with one caveat.
Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) representatives targeted by Israel and hardline Palestinians, like Abu Nidal, a renegade PLO official, were proponents of compromise with Israel.
However, this time round, Israel is likely to go for Hamas officials irrespective of where they stand within Hamas’ political spectrum.
In a potential tit-for-tat, Israel could prioritise Hamas representatives in countries like Turkey, home among others to the group’s ‘chief financial officer,’ Lebanon which hosts other senior Hamas officials beyond Mr. Al-Arouri, and Malaysia which allows Hamas to operate in the country and raise funds, even though it recently cracked down on one of Hamas’s local funding channels.
By the same token, Israel will likely refrain from striking in Qatar at senior officials like Ismail Haniyeh and Khaled Mishal, who are resident in Doha, as long as Hamas holds hostages in Gaza kidnapped during the group’s October 7 attack on Israel.
Qatar is the main mediator, attempting to negotiate further prisoner exchanges between Israel and Hamas.
In November, Qatar facilitated a one-week truce in Gaza during which Hamas released more than 100 hostages in exchange for 240 Palestinians incarcerated in Israeli prisons. Hamas still holds 129 hostages, including bodies of captives killed in the hostilities in Gaza.
A tit-for-tat assassination spree could play into the hands of Hamas, a movement proven capable of surviving the killing by Israel of its successive leaders over the past two decades.
It could also serve Hamas’ strategy articulated in 2007 by Mr. Al-Arouri in an interview with Middle East scholar Bronwen Maddox.
“Our job is to keep the Palestinians radicalized. Most of them would settle in a moment for peace, some deal that will let them get on with their lives. We need to keep them angry,” Mr. Al-Arouri said.
The jury is out on whether Hamas overshot its goal by provoking the devastation and carnage rained on Gaza by Israel’s sledgehammer response to the October 7 attack.
Irrespective of what Gazan attitudes towards Hamas will be once the guns fall silent, Mr. Al-Arouri put his finger on what remains the group’s Achilles Heel.
Rather than exploiting it, Israel has focused on security and humiliating control and subjugation of Palestinians in its zeal to thwart the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel at the expense of socio-economic development.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s recent proposal for post-war governance of Gaza suggests that Israel will continue to refrain from playing what could be its trump card.
Reconstruction and development of Gaza, managed by a compliant Palestinian authority that would lack credibility, is in Mr. Gallant’s mind an afterthought that is the international community rather than Israel’s responsibility.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.