Hamas on Tuesday accused Israel of killing Saleh al-Arouri, a top leader of the group, along with two commanders from its armed wing, the Qassam Brigades. Mr. al-Arouri is the senior-most Hamas figure to be killed since Israel vowed to destroy the organization and eliminate its leadership after a deadly Hamas-led attack on Oct. 7.
Mr. al-Arouri was assassinated in an explosion in a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, marking the first such assassination of a top Hamas official outside the West Bank and Gaza in recent years. It comes as officials across the region are worried about the war in Gaza igniting a wider conflagration.
Israeli officials would not comment on whether their forces had targeted Mr. al-Arouri, but officials from Lebanon and the United States ascribed the attack to Israel. A senior U.S. official said it was most likely the first of many strikes that Israel would carry out against Hamas operatives connected to the Oct. 7 assault.
“No one is safe if they had any hand in planning, raising money for or carrying out these attacks,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions. Citing Israel’s vow to hunt down the perpetrators of the Oct. 7 attack wherever they are, the official added, “This is just the beginning, and it’ll go on for years.”
The explosion shattered the tense calm that had prevailed in Beirut ever since Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militant group that is a Hamas ally, began clashing with Israeli forces in the wake of the Oct. 7 attack. Unlike southern Lebanon, which has been engulfed by the fighting and has seen tens of thousands of people displaced, Beirut had not been targeted in the conflict.
Videos verified by The New York Times show at least one car engulfed in flames in front of a high-rise building after the explosion, as dozens of people gathered in the area. Debris is scattered across the street, and several nearby buildings are damaged.
Israel did not warn the United States about the attack beforehand, but briefed senior American officials when it was underway, a U.S. official said, confirming a report by Axios.
Mr. al-Arouri played a key role in Hamas’s relationships with its regional allies and in increasing Hamas’s military capabilities, according to regional and Western officials. A longtime Hamas operative, he was one of the founders of the group’s armed wing and was linked to a number of attacks on Israeli civilians, including the kidnapping and killing of three teenagers in the West Bank in 2014, which he called a “heroic operation.”
In an interview last year with the Lebanese television channel Al-Mayadeen, Mr. al-Arouri was asked about the possibility that Israel might target him. “Just as our people fight back and pay the price and die, we, too, can pay that price,” he said, referring to Hamas’s leadership. “It does not impact me or shake my resolve.”
In 2017, Mr. al-Arouri was elected Hamas’s deputy political head and leader of its West Bank operations. But he spent much of his time in Beirut, where he served as a liaison between Hamas and Hezbollah.
A photo released by the Iranian government showed Saleh al-Arouri, left, and Ismail Haniyeh, center, meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran in June.Credit…Iranian Supreme Leader Office, via Associated Press
Mr. al-Arouri worked with Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’s chief in Gaza, in recent years to link the group’s military wing more closely to Iran, which, regional security officials say, most likely helped the group develop some of the capabilities it used in the Oct. 7 attack. Israel has accused Mr. Sinwar of helping to plot the assault, which officials say killed about 1,200 people and saw 240 others abducted to Gaza.
After Mr. al-Arouri’s death was announced, the Iranian news media published photos of Mr. al-Arouri meeting Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The United States, which considers Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations, had offered a reward of up to $5 million for information on Mr. al-Arouri’s whereabouts.
His work to enhance Hamas’s military prowess also earned him a high spot on Israel’s kill list. In a deck of playing cards that Israel made to help its soldiers identify Hamas leaders, Mr. al-Arouri was depicted as the joker.
Shalom Ben Hanan, a former senior official in Israel’s Shin Bet security agency, described Mr. al-Arouri as a respected but despised foe. Intelligent and charismatic, he had deepened Hamas’s activities in the West Bank, established a branch of the group in Lebanon and tightened ties with Hezbollah.
Mr. al-Arouri’s death was “an important, dramatic episode, which will undoubtedly harm Hamas’s operations” he said in an interview.
In the months since Hamas’s attack on southern Israel, Israel has retaliated with overwhelming force on Gaza, reducing vast areas to rubble, displacing 85 percent of the territory’s 2.2 million people and killing more than 20,000, according to Gaza’s health authorities.
In a rare interview with Al Jazeera last month, Mr. al-Arouri said that Israel had failed to achieve its goals in Gaza and that Hamas would fight on.
“As for breaking the resistance, breaking our people’s will and taking control of the Gaza Strip, these have become fantasies,” he said. “Now they are waging a war of revenge, a criminal war.”
Israel for decades has made assassinations of its enemies in other countries a key part of its defense strategy. In the past two weeks, Iran has accused Israel of assassinating two Iranian generals in Iraq and Syria who liaised with the regional militant groups backed by Iran. Israel has also carried out high-profile assassinations of senior Iranian military commanders and nuclear scientists in Iran and Syria, including Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, and Col. Sayad Khodayee, a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps.
As the death toll in Gaza has climbed, Hamas’s allies — a network of Iran-backed militant groups — have expanded the war with Israel on multiple fronts, including from Lebanon and in the Red Sea. Civilian deaths in Gaza have also led to international pressure on Israel to quickly end the war, leading some observers to believe that Israel, unable to fully eradicate the group, will instead focus on its leaders.
The killing of Mr. al-Arouri in Lebanon, in the heart of the neighborhood where Hezbollah maintains its offices, would most likely put pressure on the group to strike back. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has warned that any assassinations in Lebanon would elicit a strong response.
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.
Lebanon’s state news agency reported that an “enemy raid” had struck the Hamas office in Beirut’s southern suburbs, killing seven people, including Mr. al-Arouri. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s top political leader, said the strike had killed Mr. al-Arouri, two Hamas military commanders and four other members.
Najib Mikati, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, blamed Israel for the attack, condemning what he said was an attempt to drag Lebanon into “a new phase” of the conflict.
Iran also condemned the assassination. Nasser Kanaani, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, said the killing was a result of Israel’s “desperate and heavy defeat” during the Oct. 7 assault and the “heroic defiance” of Hamas’s fighters since.
As news of Mr. al-Arouri’s death spread across the region, the Israeli military said on Tuesday that it had begun withdrawing some soldiers from parts of Gaza, part of a planned pullout of about five brigades, but its forces continued pounding the enclave with airstrikes, residents said.
Witnesses and Palestinian news reports said that Israeli forces were withdrawing from parts of northern Gaza, including Jabaliya, a refugee camp dating back to 1948 that has grown into a dense, bustling neighborhood, as well as the area north of the Shati refugee camp, the area around Al-Rantisi Hospital and other neighborhoods in Gaza City.
Hearing the news, some Gazans who had fled the north earlier in the war returned to check on their homes and neighborhoods.
In southern Gaza, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said on Tuesday that Israeli shelling had struck its headquarters in Khan Younis, killing at least five people sheltering in the area, including a 5-month-old infant, and that three people had been injured, including one of the organization’s emergency medical workers. The Israeli military did not immediately comment.
The Israeli pullback in Gaza was accompanied by an announcement by the United States Navy that it would withdraw from the eastern Mediterranean the aircraft carrier the U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford, which President Biden had ordered to the region after Oct. 7.
The Ford was dispatched off the coast of Israel in an effort to deter Iran and its proxies in the region from widening the war in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas-led attack. Another carrier, the Dwight D. Eisenhower, is on station in the Gulf of Aden, off the coast of Yemen, and the Navy said that a three-ship amphibious force with more than 2,000 Marines aboard would take over for the Ford in the eastern Mediterranean.
Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad, Haley Willis, Vivian Yee, Ameera Harouda, Farnaz Fassihi and Arijeta Lajka.