Israel just reminded the world who it is.
When Israeli leadership tells Hamas to "surrender or die," now the world knows (in case they didn't) that Israel means business.
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On Tuesday, an Israeli drone assassinated Hamas deputy chairman Saleh al-Arouri, who Israel believed was the group’s top orchestrator of terrorism emanating out of the West Bank.
He was wanted for years by Israel, and the U.S. would have paid you $5 million for information on his whereabouts.
But the circumstances surrounding his assassination is what makes it incredibly timely, dramatically impactful, and a sharp reminder to the region of what tiny Israel is capable of pulling off.
Hamas confirmed that seven people in total were killed in the explosion, a precision strike on a third-floor apartment in Beirut, where he was living. You know, Lebanon’s capital and largest city, some 283 kilometers (175 miles) from Gaza. This isn’t something random city in Lebanon, but a cosmopolitan cultural and financial center where many Saudis, Brazilians, Canadians, and others have large stakes.
Had al-Arouri been on or near the Israel-Lebanon border, where military exchanges have more or less been a daily occurrence between Israel and Hezbollah since Hamas’ October 7th terror attacks, this story would be a rather routine, here-today-gone-tomorrow one. He was in the crosshairs of a combat zone, and whether the assassination was calculated or coincidental, things like this happen in combat zones. That would have been the beginning and end of it.
But to go after a senior Hamas operative in an international city far away from the Israel-Lebanon border was extraordinarily risky, and its success nothing short of striking. More importantly, it sends a fiery message to Israel’s enemies: The Israelis were not just talking the talk a few weeks ago when they vowed to target all Hamas leaders, wherever they are in the world.
“Hamas members have two options: Either die in their positions or surrender unconditionally. There is no third option,” said Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant 10 days after the October 7th attacks. I imagine this applies to Hamas’ friends as well, such as Hezbollah and the Houthis.
But what if the assassination attempt had failed? The fallout would have been ruinous for Israel. Completely. The Israelis would have further distanced themselves politically and diplomatically from even their greatest of friends.
It would have made the calls for a ceasefire deafening, perhaps to a point where Israel would have to either significantly curtail its operations in Gaza, or suspend them altogether. And it would have emboldened Hamas in negotiations for the remaining hundred or so hostages, which in turn would have put their lives at even greater risk.
And yet, we can be sure that Israeli leadership would not have given a green light on the assassination attempt unless they were plenty certain of its impending success, which also comes with a massive risk: the escalation of a regional conflict, something the U.S. (Israel’s main backer) appears stubbornly against. Hence why, just a day before the assassination, the U.S. Navy said it is ending one of its aircraft carrier’s deployment to the eastern Mediterranean, which started in support of Israel after the October 7th attacks.
But the U.S. has seldom displayed great competence in reading the Middle East forecast, and it could very well be making another misstep here. As the weeks go by in the Israel-Hamas war, it seems pretty clear that Iran (via its proxies) wants the war to expand.
Plus, if you’re Hamas (a tentacle of the Iranian octopus), what good would a ceasefire do now? Much of Gaza is destroyed, many countries in the Middle East and across the world want the terror group to give up governing power in the strip, and Palestinian support for Hamas in Gaza is declining (even though it’s climbing in the West Bank).
The assassination of its deputy leader in the capital of another country is a prime excuse for Iran’s proxies to up their ante, especially Hezbollah, since the assassination took place on its so-called terrain. If Iranian proxies were to escalate the war, Israel’s historical deterrence strategy — inflicting more damage than it receives — will make ignoring this escalation difficult, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of increased bloodshed on all sides that enter the fray.
And yet, despite the overwhelming hazards that both an unsuccessful and ultimately successful assassination attempt poses, Israel had no choice but to pursue it. And that’s why it did.
After the Jewish state’s intelligence, military, and security establishments seemingly went on an off-the-grid vacation leading up to and during the October 7th terror attacks, Israel suddenly appeared to be what Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called “as fragile as a spider web.” All indications are that this utter Israeli failure was at least in part produced by the internal, boiling-over division produced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing government and their efforts at hurried, steadfast judicial reform.
Israel did not seem like the mighty country it built itself into being in one of the most dangerous regions of the world. And Hamas, whose genocidal ambitions many Israelis (including myself) have overconfidently mocked for years, abruptly became an existential threat. As one Israeli politician, Yoav Kisch, aptly put it: “We were busy with nonsense. We forgot where we live.”
Historically, Israelis are confident, but still vigilant. It’s why they’ve been able to pull off some of the craziest operations the world has seen, including the raid on Entebbe — the 1976 rescue operation by Israeli commandos to release more than 100 Jewish hostages after their plane was hijacked by Palestinian and German terrorists.
There was also Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm that caused substantial damage to Iran’s nuclear program. “The attackers took great care to make sure that only their designated targets were hit. It was a marksman’s job,” three New York Times journalists wrote.1
And, of course, the Iron Dome, the world’s greatest mobile, all-weather missile defense system ever built. The system shoots down some 90 percent of enemy rockets that would otherwise land in populated civilian areas.
Israeli dominance is thus a combination of fundamentally understanding its enemies, superior technology, a wide talent pool (since conscription is mandatory), and bold creative endeavors.
But the Israel we woke up to on October 7th did not demonstrate any semblances of this combination. It was exorbitantly surprised, lethally slow, mentally paralyzed, socially divided, and politically handicapped.
On Tuesday, however, much of this depressing reality changed after an Israeli drone assassinated Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri. It gave Israelis and their supporters a sense that, even though the war in Gaza is still very much ongoing, and it will for many more months Israeli officials continue to remind us, and even if Hamas, while battered, is far from demolished, Israel remains powerful.
The war’s progress, and the question of who should govern Gaza after it, remain fuzzy at best, but the assassination painted an uncomplicated picture: Israel is developing a new doctrine, whereby no terror group will be tolerated on any of its borders, and there will be dire consequences for offenders. Furthermore, Palestinian politicians, factions, and their supporters that blame Israel for everything can be trusted with nothing.
When the Jewish state withdrew its citizens and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, Israel believed that Gazans, when given self-sovereignty, would prefer to develop their society, rather than attack Israel and risk losing it. That presumption turned out to be disastrous, obviously.
“We had a dinosaur in our backyard,” said a senior Israeli officer, “and our mistake was to feed it.”2
Now, Israel seems to remember that it cannot be powerful if it is fearful. And it will have to be even more powerful, even more daring, and even more creative to reach Hamas leaders in Turkey, Qatar, and perhaps other countries.
Time is on Israel’s side, and it’s going to be a long war with many phases, maybe with intervals where conditions will allow for lower-intensity fighting here and there.
But those conditions depend less on Israel and more on Iran, its proxies, West Bank Palestinians remaining deterrable and manageable, and friends of Israel not calling for a ceasefire some way into the conflict — before the stage at which Israel can actually declare victory.
“For Israel seems to be the only country in the world never allowed to win a conflict,” wrote British author Douglas Murray. “It is allowed to fight a conflict to a draw, but rarely to a win. Which is one reason why the wars keep occurring.”3
That’s why, as Murray pointed out, there is no reason the IDF or Israel’s political or military echelon should listen to the opinions of people with little to no skin in the game. And perhaps it isn’t. According to a popular Israeli news site, Israel did not give the U.S. advance notice of the strike in Beirut that assassinated the Hamas deputy leader and several other members of the Gaza-ruling terror group.
Why is this noteworthy? Because it seems to me that Israel can look after itself, even when it struggles to do so at times. And because it is a reminder that when it comes to the questions of survival in the volatile Middle East, it is not Israel that should worry. It is everybody else.
“Israel Tests on Worm Called Crucial in Iran Nuclear Delay.” New York Times.
“Hamas Doesn’t Want a Cease-Fire.” The Atlantic.
“The Easy Politics of Criticizing Israel.”