Hamas’s deputy political bureau chief, Saleh al-Arouri, currently based in Lebanon, is interested in surrounding Israel with rocket and terror bases, and so is Iran.
That common interest has enabled al-Arouri to create new levels of cooperation between his Sunni-Islamist terror faction and the radical Shi’ite regime in Tehran.
“This is actually one of the strong people within Hamas. I would actually say that he is among the top three of the movement,” said IDF Col. (res.) Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at Reichman University in Herzliya.
According to Milshtein, al-Arouri is responsible for the Judea and Samaria arena on behalf of Hamas, including Jerusalem. In addition, al-Arouri coordinates Hamas activity with other members of “the axis of resistance,” said Milshtein, ex-head of the Department for Palestinians Affairs in IDF Military Intelligence.
Al-Arouri is also responsible for a large portion of Hamas’s military operations abroad, said Milshtein. He “manages to direct tactical military activity but also be involved and think strategically, and basically ‘swim’ between the two worlds,” he added.
IDF Col. (res.) David Hacham, a senior research associate at the MirYam Institute and a former adviser on Arab affairs to seven Israeli defense ministers, said al-Arouri joined Hamas’s military in the early 1990s, during the First Intifada.
“He was responsible for establishing Hamas’s military wing in the Judea and Samaria region. For his activities, he sat in an Israeli prison for 18 years. After his release, he went o to Syria, where he settled. Later, in 2012, he left Syria after the outbreak of the country’s civil war, and came to Turkey where he headed Hamas headquarters,” said Hacham.
“In 2015, after Israeli and American pressure on Turkey, he moved to Qatar along with most of Hamas’s overseas leadership. After a short stopover in Malaysia, he arrived in Lebanon where he currently operates,” Hacham said.
In 2014, the Israeli military demolished his home in the village of Aroura, near Ramallah, believing him to have been involved in the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers in Judea and Samaria.
Al-Arouri, like the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, represents the younger generation in the Hamas leadership, according to the Israeli observers. Both have operational experience and have served lengthy prison terms, speak Hebrew and are familiar with Israel, unlike members of the older Hamas generation, such as Khaled Mashaal, said Hacham.
Milshtein described al-Arouri as a major connector between Hamas and other members of the radical Islamist camp opposed to Israel’s existence. For example, al-Arouri’s role in the launch by Hamas of 34 rockets at northern Israel from Lebanon in April this year was a prominent one, he said.
Al-Arouri’s unique role is enabled by two factors, according to Milshtein. “One is Arouri’s location in Beirut. And the other is his basic approach for vigorous promotion of jihad in several arenas. Especially in Judea and Samaria and the newer arena—Lebanon. This makes him a favorite for Tehran and Hezbollah,” said Milshtein. “In this context, he is involved in formulating strategic relations, but also in practical terms, he is involved in weapons procurement, training, organization, military cooperation and more.”
Hacham cautioned that Arouri’s objective of unifying fronts against Israel directly contradicts Israel’s essential interest of differentiating between the arenas.
“This is particularly true for Israel’s differentiation between Gaza and Judea and Samaria. Hamas, on the other hand, wants to create as close a connection as possible between the various conflict arenas—Gaza, Judea and Samaria, Jerusalem, the Arab sector in Israel and Lebanon—and to gain effective control over the power switch of escalation,” he said.
“Hamas strives to ensure its ability to ignite and activate the arenas, individually or together, at an appropriate time according to the circumstances,” he added.
According to Milshtein, Al-Arouri’s intense efforts help him greatly with regard to fortifying his status within Hamas as someone who succeeds in preserving “the jihad,” and who found a way to activate arenas against Israel.
“I would describe al-Arouri and Sinwar as two halves of the same whole. Each is responsible for another major activity area in Hamas. They share the same concept, and I believe both are strategically coordinated,” said Milshtein.
Hacham said Israel has so far avoided eliminating al-Arouri for a number of reasons.
First, he spent many of the past 15 years in sovereign countries, some of which have diplomatic ties with Israel, Hacham noted. Second, previous targeted killings have shown that leaders are quickly replaced in terror factions, and third, there is concern that his elimination would increase motivation for terrorist revenge attacks on Israeli targets, or could spark a wider escalation.
Nevertheless, said Hacham, al-Arouri could certainly become a future target for assassination.
“Targeted killings are the number one worry of the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad leaderships,” said Hacham, who spoke with JNS before Israel launched “Operation Shield and Arrow” on Tuesday with the assassination of three senior PIJ commanders in Gaza.