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Killing of a senior Hamas official in Beirut stokes fear of wider Israel-Hamas war

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The killing of a senior Hamas official, Saleh Arouri, in Beirut, Lebanon, is being blamed on Israel, and it's seen as a major escalation that many fear could open a new front in the war between Israel and Hamas. The blast that killed Arouri struck in a southern suburb of Beirut, a far cry from the trading of fire between Israel and the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah in the south of Lebanon. In a speech yesterday, the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, condemned the assassination. But the big question is, will Hezbollah retaliate? To talk about what Lebanon is facing, we turn to journalist and analyst Kim Ghattas. She's a distinguished fellow with the Columbia Institute of Global Politics, and she joins us now from Beirut. Kim, welcome to the program.

KIM GHATTAS: Good morning, Leila. Thanks for having me.

FADEL: Good morning. So Israel has not claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attack, but Lebanon is blaming Israel, accusing it of violating its sovereignty. And last night we heard from the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah. After listening to his speech, Kim, how dangerous is this moment right now? Will the war spread?

GHATTAS: The risk is certainly there because there are many ways in which the different parties in the region could misstep, miscalculate, whether it's Hezbollah, whether it's the Israelis, the Iranians or even the Americans, as we hear today that there's been a strike in Baghdad against Shia militia fighters there, which is likely to have been carried out by U.S. forces. So the risk of miscalculation is there, and the risk of escalation is there. However, so far, what we've seen in terms of the behavior of Hezbollah and therefore of Iran is very calculated risk-taking, very calculated measures to make sure this does not go to full-blown escalation between Hezbollah and Israel. The Iranians and Hezbollah do not want a full-on war. The Americans don't want a full-on war. And they've made that message very clear to Israel since October 7 or October 8, when skirmishes started between Hezbollah and Israel on the border.

Now, we did hear from Hassan Nasrallah saying there will have to be some kind of response. But the sentence that struck me most in his speech was his word saying, if Israel wages war against Lebanon, our response will be with no limits. And so that's another way of saying that the strike conducted - if it was indeed Israel, and it most likely is - conducted against the Hamas leader in the southern suburbs of Beirut, is not, in his view, a strike against Lebanon, which gives them a continued way out as I've explained, that they are trying to toe a very careful line in how they manage the situation.

FADEL: You talk about the risk of miscalculation. I mean, that's something I've been thinking about in the sense that, at what point does Hezbollah maybe - is there a red line for them? And they project this image as a powerful resistance group to Israel. But so far, as you point out, they've been very careful, as has Iran.

GHATTAS: They do have a credibility problem in the face of their supporters who - and the Palestinians. We've heard from Hamas leaders saying, you know, we expected more support from Hezbollah after October 7, and that has not been forthcoming. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, says that they are doing what is best, what is in their interest, what is in the interest of Lebanon and what they call the axis of resistance. But they do have a credibility problem with their base. Having for years said that they were the defenders of the Palestinian cause, you hear a lot of criticism today, or at least a recognition that it's become clear that for Iran, Hezbollah serves one key purpose, which is a first line of defense for Iran itself. Should the day come where Iran feels that it might come under attack itself, it will use Hezbollah to defend itself and to attack Israel. And until that day comes, they would like to preserve that card for themselves and not, in a way, waste it in support of the Palestinians.

FADEL: Is there an appetite right now, though, among Lebanese for an all-out war with Israel? I mean, this is a country that's struggling.

GHATTAS: Absolutely no appetite whatsoever for war with Israel or any kind of war - this is a country that has been through a terrible economic crisis over the last three years, that has lived through a huge blast at the Beirut port in 2020, the largest non-nuclear blast in modern history. This is a country that has been through 15 years of civil war from '75 to 1990, including a devastating Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which killed 17,000 people and injured some 30,000 as well. And raw in people's memory is the war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, which was also devastating for Lebanon and saw mass evacuations across 34 days of conflict. So there is a chorus of voices in Lebanon saying, you know, we are in support of the Palestinian cause, but we've paid our dues. You know, we don't want full-on war. But unfortunately, the decision of peace and war is not in the hands of the Lebanese state. It's very much in the hands of Hezbollah.

FADEL: That's author Kim Ghattas speaking with us from Beirut. Thank you so much for your time, Kim.

GHATTAS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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