Jaafar Ashtiyeh Agence France-Presse Relatives of Saleh al-Arouri hang Hamas flags near his residence in Arura, north of Ramallah, in the West Bank on Wednesday.
Adel Zaanoun – Agence France-Presse and Margaux Bergey respectively in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem
- Middle East
The Israeli army continued its bombings on the besieged Gaza Strip on Wednesday, saying it was ready to face “any scenario” the day after a strike near Beirut killed a senior leader of the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas which revived fears of an extension of the conflict.
Although not having claimed responsibility for the elimination in Beirut on Tuesday evening of Saleh al-Arouri, 57, Hamas' political number two, Israel is widely considered responsible for the fatal strike on the founder of the military branch of the movement, after vowing to “destroy” Hamas in response to its unprecedented October 7 attack on Israeli soil.
Now, “Israeli forces are in a very high state of readiness in all arenas, on defense and offense. We are highly prepared for any scenario,” said army spokesman Daniel Hagari.
He spoke on Tuesday evening, shortly after the shock wave caused in Lebanon by the strike attributed to Israel in the southern suburbs of Beirut, stronghold of pro-Iranian Hezbollah, which partially destroyed a building in which the number two of the political branch of Hamas and at least six other of its cadres were located, all killed.
“A movement whose leaders and founders fall as martyrs for the dignity of our people and our nation will never be defeated,” responded Ismaïl Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, denouncing “a violation of sovereignty of Lebanon” and an “expansion” of the ongoing war in the Gaza Strip.
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Lebanese Hezbollah warned on Tuesday evening that “the assassination of Saleh al-Arouri” was not only a “serious aggression against Lebanon” but also “a serious development in the war between the enemy and the axis of resistance,” a term referring to Iran and its regional allies hostile to Israel.
“This crime will not go unanswered or unpunished,” added Hezbollah, whose secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, is due to deliver a highly anticipated speech on Wednesday evening. The Lebanese Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, accused Israel of “wanting to drag Lebanon into a new phase of confrontation”.
For analyst Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center based in Beirut, “the risk of escalation is significant, but Hezbollah is striving to avoid being drawn into a conflict” , she told AFP.
Since the start of the war between Israel and Hamas on October 7, tensions have increased on the Israeli-Lebanese border, in Syria and Iraq where American bases have been targeted, and at sea Red with attacks by Houthi rebels, again Tuesday evening according to the American army, to slow down maritime traffic in “support” of Gaza.
French President Emmanuel Macron called on Israel to “avoid any escalatory attitude, particularly in Lebanon” during a telephone exchange with Israeli Minister Benny Gantz, a member of Benjamin Netanyahu's war cabinet.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, for his part, called the strike a “cowardly terrorist operation.”
The Hamas attack on October 7 left around 1,140 dead in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP count based on official Israeli data. Commandos from the movement had taken around 250 people hostage, more than 100 of whom were released at the end of November during a week-long truce.
The war which has lasted for almost three months has cost the lives of 22,313 people in Gaza, mainly women, adolescents and children, according to a new report Wednesday from Hamas, classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and the European Union.
“Difficult for us”
Saleh al-Arouri, exiled Hamas leader for the occupied West Bank, is the highest-ranking Hamas official killed since October 7. Shortly after the announcement of his death, many Palestinians gathered in the streets of Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank.
“The news of the martyrdom of (Saleh al-Arouri) is very difficult for us, but he is not worth more than those who died as martyrs in Gaza and are more than 20,000,” said to AFP Diya Zaloum, a young demonstrator.
On Wednesday, the cities of Nablus and Ramallah in particular stopped life, responding to the call from the Palestinian Authority asking residents to observe a general strike. AFP photos show empty streets and closed businesses.
In Arura, a small village north of Ramallah, where Saleh al-Arouri was from, the green Hamas flag flew above the family home on Wednesday.
Despite demands for a ceasefire from the international community, the Israeli army is preparing for “protracted fighting”, which is expected to last “throughout the year” in the Strip. Gaza.
“Cut to pieces”
On the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “deplored” “unacceptable” strikes on a hospital in Khan Younes, in the south of the Gaza Strip, which notably damaged local installations of the Palestinian Red Crescent.
On Wednesday morning, an AFP journalist reported strikes on Khan Younes where the Hamas health ministry counted “numerous” deaths.
The Gaza Strip's 2.4 million residents face severe shortages of food, water, fuel and medicine. Despite a UN resolution, humanitarian aid is trickling in.
“I have been here for seven days, I sleep in the rain, without a tent […] we had to beg for blankets in apartments around,” sighs Wojoud Kamal al-Shinbary, who found refuge in Rafah, a town bordering Egypt.
In Jabaliya, in the north of Gaza, Sajda Maarouf also describes her hell after local strikes: “the bombs were falling on us, people were being cut to pieces […] we want a truce, please, we are exhausted.”
An Israeli minister advocates a mass departure of Palestinians
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir on Wednesday again advocated a mass departure of Palestinians from Gaza, rejecting American criticism calling his previous scenario statements “irresponsible”.
“The United States is our good friend, but above all, we will do what is good for the State of Israel: encouraging the emigration of hundreds of thousands of people from Gaza will enable residents (Israelis) to return home (to the edge of Gaza) and live in safety while protecting our soldiers,” Mr. Ben Gvir wrote on the social network X in response to American criticism.
Mr. Ben Gvir, leader of the far-right pro-settler Jewish Force party, called on Monday for a return of Jewish settlers to Gaza, after the current war, and to “encourage” the Palestinian population to emigrate, the day after a similar call from another far-right minister, that of Finance, Bezalel Smotrich.
The expulsion of a population from its territory is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions, which constitute the heart of international humanitarian law, and the statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC) designate “deportation or forced population transfer” as a crime against humanity.
“The United States rejects recent statements by Israeli Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir advocating the relocation of Palestinians out of Gaza,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement on Tuesday, calling these about “irresponsible”.
Mr. Smotrich, who heads the Religious Zionism party, returned to the charge on Wednesday, saying in statements reported by the media that “70% of the Israeli public supports the voluntary emigration of Arabs from Gaza and their absorption by other countries”.
According to him, “the supporters of such a humanitarian solution understand that a small country like ours cannot afford a reality where, just four minutes from our localities, there is a hotbed of hatred and terror, where two million people wake up every morning with the desire to destroy the State of Israel.”
Mr. Smotrich denied the existence of a Palestinian people during a private visit to Paris in March. “There are no Palestinians because there is no Palestinian people,” he said.
The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, combining right-wing, far-right parties and ultra-orthodox Jewish groups, is already accused of having largely strengthened the weight of settlers in the West Bank, Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
France Media Agency