Lebanese hold their breath as Netanyahu and Khamenei beat the drums of war

With every passing week, a new event seems to escalate tensions further. A handful of men with a point to prove now hold the region hostage. Amidst all this, calmer heads hope to prevail.

Lebanese hold their breath as Netanyahu and Khamenei beat the drums of war

Israel has acted on its warnings to target the leaders of Hamas in foreign territories and appears to be targeting those of Hezbollah, too.

One such Hamas leader, Saleh Mohammed Suleiman Khaseeb (known as Al-Arouri after his birthplace of Aroura near Ramallah), was killed following an attack on a Hamas bureau in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

The strike was executed with guided missiles launched from a warplane, not a drone, as verified by a security source.

Al-Arouri was Hamas’s deputy chief, the founder of its military wing, and its leader in the West Bank, where the Al-Qassam Brigades are active.

After spending over a decade in Israeli prisons, he was expelled from Palestinian territories by Israel’s Supreme Court. He moved to Syria, then to Turkey and Qatar, before ultimately settling in the Lebanese capital.

In 2017, after being elected as the deputy leader of Hamas, Al-Arouri visited Tehran and met Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah. This meeting was seen as evidence of his strong connections with Iran.

Will Al-Arouri be answered?

Hours after his assassination last week, Nasrallah called it “a grave crime” that “will not go unanswered or unpunished”.

Simultaneously, he said: “Currently, our calculations are based on Lebanese interests.

However, should a war be waged on Lebanon, the imperatives of Lebanese national interests mandate us to pursue this war to its conclusion.”

This latter comment suggests that he did not see Al-Arouri’s death as a casus belli, or cause of war, despite the Israeli strike breaching rules of engagement in a Hezbollah stronghold.

More precisely, it was not a declaration of war on Lebanon.

Nasrallah did not seem to see Al-Arouri's killing as a declaration of war, despite the attack taking place in a Hezbollah stronghold.

This interpretation was swiftly backed up by a message from an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the attack on Al-Arouri "did not target the Lebanese government or Hezbollah".

It remains to be seen whether that changes after the reported Israeli attack on 8 January that killed senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil in the Khibert Selm area in the Bint Jbeil district of southern Lebanon.

Certainly, Israel's chief of staff Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi sounded bullish a day earlier, saying Israel would "create a completely different reality" in the north, "or we'll get to another war".

Still holding back

Despite Hezbollah and Israel exchanging fire along the border, both the militia and Iran seem unwilling to escalate the conflict, remaining committed to limited and measured military operations, whether over land or in the Red Sea.

Nevertheless, the severity of the situation cannot be overlooked. The region has been on edge for three months.

Hezbollah has now had 150 fighters killed by Israel since 7 October. During that time, tensions have only risen.

Nasrallah said factions within the 'resistance axis' make independent decisions, claiming that Iran neither instructed Houthi forces to open a front in the Red Sea nor directed Hezbollah to open a front in southern Lebanon.

I don't know whether he expects anyone to believe that.

Despite Hezbollah and Israel exchanging fire along the border, both the militia and Iran seem unwilling to escalate the conflict.

Since the Hamas attack on 7 October, Nasrallah has consistently sought to acquit Iran's government from any involvement. According to him, Iran "exerts no guardianship over the factions in the region or their leaders".

Back in May, however, Nasrallah suggested there would be a degree of coordination, saying "the real headline for the resistance's response in Gaza is the establishment of a joint operations room for the resistance factions".

Whatever happened to that operations room? Perhaps it was overshadowed by events in October. Perhaps it was discarded if this aligned with Iran's interests.

Sending messages

So far, Iran has shown no sign of interest in expanding the scope of the war.

The initial message from the US was understood, that broadening the conflict will lead to a comprehensive war between the US and Iran, reaching into Iranian territory.

Likewise, on 5 January, the US Navy's biggest aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald. R. Ford, left the Mediterranean, after months' there to protect Israel and to convey a clear message.

Just as its initial posting was symbolic of protective intent, so its exit from the region can be seen as symbolising that President Biden is not inclined towards war.

This time, the message may have been directed at Netanyahu, who seems to want the war in Gaza to go on.

Notably, just hours after the assassination of Al-Arouri, the US attributed responsibility for the operation to Israel.

Pulling the USS Gerald. R. Ford out of the Mediterranean may have been a message to Netanyahu over Gaza.

Despite al-Arouri being a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the US, with a $5mn reward for information on him, Washington was swift to distance itself from any involvement in, or awareness of, the operation.

Tellingly, the spokesman for the US National Security Council, John Kirby, said: "We do not believe that the military attack will eliminate the ideology of Hamas, and we accept the idea that Hamas will remain present."

When war is helpful

Netanyahu seems to be alone in wanting to expand the scope of a war that has temporarily postponed his internal problems, not least with regard to his government's hugely unpopular attack on the independence of Israel's judiciary.

On that, he has suffered a significant setback, with Israel's Supreme Court voting down the plans, which will prove politically decisive for Netanyahu once the Gaza war ends.

The entire region, particularly Lebanon, seems to be holding its breath. A financial crisis has badly hit the Lebanese economy, and the country is in no mood for war with Israel, which Nasrallah knows.

Still, the lives of millions are beholden to the machinations and madness of decision-makers like Netanyahu and Khamenei.

By banging the drums of war, they jeopardise the security and stability of the region. They hold their populations hostage, condemned to live in perpetual fear, a near-constant state of anxiety and insecurity, compounded by poverty.

This newly chronic condition has become Middle East Syndrome.

Those who do not perish in futile wars or succumb to oppression, illness, or hunger opt to risk their lives at sea or dodge the border guards' bullets by land.

The reason is simple: the Middle East they seek to escape has metamorphosised into a vast prison governed by criminals and guarded by the unhinged.

Welcome to the Party of Madness.

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