Saleh al-Arouri: Mastermind of Hamas terrorism in West Bank, hostage deal negotiator

Deputy head of Gaza-ruling terror group was long in Israeli crosshairs before being assassinated in Beirut, where he played a key role in cementing ties with Hezbollah and Iran

This file photo released by the Hamas Media Office shows deputy Saleh Arouri upon his arrival in in Gaza City from Cairo, Egypt, on August 2, 2018. (Mohammad Austaz/Hamas Media Office via AP)

Deputy Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri had long expected the Israeli drone strike that security sources said killed him in Beirut on Tuesday, three months after his Palestinian terror group’s surprise cross-border onslaught that triggered a months-long war in Gaza.

“I am waiting for martyrdom and think that I lived too long,” he said in August, as he urged Palestinians in the West Bank to take up arms amid a surge of violence.

The killing of the notorious terror chief comes at a defining moment for the Gaza-ruling organization, as Israel attempts to eradicate it in retaliation for the October 7 massacres, when Hamas terrorists rampaged across the border, killing around 1,200 people and seizing some 240 hostages.

Israel has long accused Arouri of lethal attacks on its citizens, but a Hamas official said he was also “at the heart of negotiations” over the outcome of the Gaza war and the release of hostages conducted by Qatar and Egypt.

“Whoever did this did a surgical strike against the Hamas leadership,” said Mark Regev, a senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu. Israel does not typically confirm or deny responsibility for such attacks.

Though less influential than Hamas’s leaders in Gaza, Arouri was seen as a key player in the terror group, masterminding its operations in the West Bank — where he was the top commander — from exile in Syria, Turkey, Qatar and finally Lebanon after long stints in Israeli prisons. In 2015, the US Treasury Department designated Arouri as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, offering $5 million for information about him.

Smoke rises from a destroyed apartment as civil defense workers search for survivors following a massive explosion in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, that killed Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Aruori, January 2, 2024. (Bilal Hussein/AP)

As the group’s senior official in Lebanon he played a big role in cementing Hamas’s relations with the Lebanese terror organization Hezbollah, and through it with Iran, the main backer for both groups.

Arouri met Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah several times, as well as Iranian officials in Lebanon and Hamas sources said he worked with them to coordinate positions regarding the conflict in Gaza.

Hamas has confirmed his death but not otherwise commented. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an allied terror group, swore revenge for his killing in a statement on Tuesday, saying it would “not go unpunished.”

In this photo released on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, by the Hezbollah Media Relations Office, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, right, meets with Ziad al-Nakhaleh, the head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, center, and Hamas deputy chief, Saleh al-Arouri, in Beirut, Lebanon. (Hezbollah Media Relations Office, via AP )

Within Hamas, Arouri was described as a leading advocate of reconciliation between rival Palestinian factions, enjoying a good relationship with Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas which holds sway in the West Bank.

Hamas and Fatah have been at odds for years, fighting a brief civil war in 2007 when Hamas seized power in Gaza, though the rival organizations have continued to hold periodic negotiations.

But when it came to the conflict with Israel, Arouri was seen as a hardliner. He helped found the terror group’s military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and Israel accused him of orchestrating deadly attacks over the years.

From left to right: Eyal Yifrach, 19, Gil-ad Shaar, 16, and Naftali Fraenkel, 16, three Israeli teenagers who were seized and kiled by Palestinians on June 12, 2014 (photo credit: IDF/AP)

Israeli intelligence officials believe that among numerous other attacks, Arouri helped plan the June 2014 kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teens — Gil-ad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach and Naftali Fraenkel.

‘No other option’

As Israel’s military control of the West Bank continued, with Jewish settlements expanding and Palestinian statehood appearing ever more distant, Arouri said there was “no other option” but to engage in what he called comprehensive resistance.

He was one of the senior Hamas leaders behind the terror group’s strong expansion into the West Bank, where its gunmen have carried out a string of deadly attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers over the past 18 months.

Several shootings last year took place shortly after Arouri had made televised threats against Israel.

With the group’s Gaza leaders Yahya Sinwar, Muhammed Deif and Marwan Issa in deep hiding, Arouri was closely involved in negotiations around the war, saying in December that no more hostages would be released until there was a full ceasefire.

As a member of Hamas’s politburo under the terror group’s Qatar-based overall leader Ismail Haniyeh, Arouri was well used to dialogue, even — indirectly — with his bitter enemies the Israelis.

Hamas deputy chief Saleh al-Arouri. (Courtesy)

Born near Ramallah in the West Bank in 1966, Arouri was an early recruit to Hamas, joining when it was formed in 1987 as Palestinians began the First Intifada uprising against Israel.

He was jailed in 1992, a year before Fatah’s leadership agreed to the Oslo accords with Israel, accepting its existence and abandoning armed struggle in favor of a push to negotiate the creation of a Palestinian state — an approach rejected by Hamas.

He served several terms in Israeli jails, and was released in March 2010 as part of efforts to reach a larger prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit, an IDF corporal kidnapped by Hamas in 2006. Arouri went on to be involved in sewing up the deal that provided for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in return for the freeing of Shalit in 2011, an agreement that Hamas hopes to replicate after the current war using hostages seized on October 7.

Arouri spent three years in Syria before moving to Turkey until Israel pressed Ankara to make him leave in 2015 when the two countries briefly patched up ties after years of acrimony (relations have once again soured amid the latest war in Gaza). He has since been residing in Qatar and Lebanon, working from Hamas’s office in Beirut’s Dahiyeh district, a Hezbollah stronghold, until Tuesday’s sudden strike.

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