JERUSALEM — The chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service vowed Wednesday that the agency would hunt down every Hamas member involved in the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, no matter where they are. His pledge came a day after the deputy head of the Palestinian militant group was killed in a suspected Israeli strike in Beirut.
Israel has refused to comment on reports it carried out the killing, but the comments by David Barnea appeared to be the strongest indication yet it was behind the blast. He made a comparison to the aftermath of the 1972 Munich Massacre, when Mossad agents tracked down and killed a string of Palestinian militants involved in killing Israeli athletes at that year’s Olympic games.
Israel was on high alert Wednesday for an escalation with Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia after the strike in the Lebanese capital killed Saleh Arouri, the most senior Hamas member slain since the war in Gaza erupted nearly three months ago.
Hamas Has Quickly Replaced Past Slain Leaders
The implications of the killing for the war remain unclear. Israel has killed several top Hamas leaders over the years, only to see them quickly replaced. The strike in Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold could cause the low-intensity fighting along the Lebanon border to boil over into all-out war.
Much depends on how Hassan Nasrallah — who has led Hezbollah since an Israeli strike killed his predecessor in 1992 — chooses to respond. He has previously vowed to retaliate for any Israeli targeting of allied militant leaders in Lebanon and was expected to deliver a speech at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
But Arouri’s killing provided a morale boost for Israelis still reeling from the Oct. 7 attack as the militants continue to put up stiff resistance in Gaza and hold scores of hostages.
Barnea said the Mossad is “committed to settling accounts with the murderers who raided the Gaza envelope,” referring to the area of southern Israel that Hamas attacked. He vowed to pursue everyone involved, “directly or indirectly,” including “planners and envoys.”
“It’ll take time, as it took time after the Munich massacre, but we will put our hands on them wherever they are,” he said. Barnea was speaking at the funeral of former Mossad head Zvi Zamir, who died at age 98 a day earlier.
Zamir headed the intelligence agency at the time of the 1972 Munich Olympic attack, in which Palestinian militants killed 11 members of the Israeli delegation. Israel subsequently killed members of the Black September militant group who carried out the attack.
What’s Next for Hezbollah?
Hezbollah and the Israeli military have been exchanging fire almost daily over the Israeli-Lebanese border since the war in Gaza began.
But Nasrallah has appeared reluctant to escalate it further, perhaps fearing a repeat of the monthlong 2006 war, when Israel heavily bombed Beirut and southern Lebanon. A return of that destruction now would likely heighten opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon.
At the same time, Hezbollah also faces pressure to show support for its ally Hamas. Leaders in the Palestinian group clearly expect Hezbollah to have its back.
In an interview Saturday, three days before Arouri’s killing, The Associated Press asked Beirut-based Hamas political official Osama Hamdan if the group was worried about the possibility of Israel assassinating its officials in Lebanon.
Hamdan predicted that Hezbollah would not let that go unpunished, and an all-out war would ensue. “So why would Israel want to do that? Does it want a war” in Lebanon? he asked. “War can happen if Israel acts wrongly and aggressively,” he said, or war might not occur “if Israel takes a step back and acts in a way that is not aggressive against Lebanon.”
Hezbollah vowed “response and punishment” for the strike. Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Israeli forces were “on high readiness for any scenario.”
Hezbollah said Wednesday that its fighters carried out at least eight attacks against Israeli posts along the border, including four using heavy warhead Burkan rockets. The statement did not directly link the fire to Arouri’s killing.
The United States has sought to prevent any widening of the conflict, including by deploying two aircraft carriers and other military assets to the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was expected in the region this week.
Israel Seeks a ‘Clear Victory’ in Gaza
The focus of the war remains on Gaza, where Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel is seeking a “clear victory” over Hamas, which has ruled the territory since 2007.
Israel’s air, ground and sea assault in Gaza has killed more than 22,300 people, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Health Ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory. The count does not differentiate between civilians and combatants.
The campaign has driven some 85% of Gaza’s population from their homes, forcing hundreds of thousands of people into overcrowded shelters or teeming tent camps in Israeli-designated safe areas that the military has nevertheless bombed. A quarter of Gaza’s population face starvation, according to the United Nations, as Israeli restrictions and heavy fighting hinder aid delivery.
Still, Israel appears far from achieving its goals of crushing Hamas and returning the estimated 129 hostages still held by the group.