My interview with the Hamas deputy leader killed in Beirut

Saleh al-Arouri told Chatham House Director Bronwen Maddox about his ambition for Hamas – and his long term strategy to achieve it

Expert comment Published 2 January 2024 Updated 9 February 2024 3 minute READ

There are some interviews you don’t forget. For me, high on that list was a conversation with Saleh al-Arouri, one of the leaders of Hamas implicated in the 7 October atrocities in Israel, who has just been killed in Lebanon by a drone strike. 

Israel has not responded to questions about whether it committed the drone strike – nor to Hamas’s furious accusation that it had made ‘a cowardly attack’.

But al-Arouri, one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing in the West Bank, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, and a deputy to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, was known to be one of the names on the target list cited by Israeli officials in the wake of 7 October as they try to destroy the terrorist group.

Israeli troops demolished al-Arouri’s family house in the village of Arour, from which he took his name, high in the West Bank hills above Ramallah, at the end of October. The US had put a $5 million price tag on his head. 

I met al-Arouri at that house in March 2007… he had just been released from 15 years in an Israeli jail for his role in Hamas.

I met al-Arouri at that house on 25 March 2007, when I was foreign editor of The Times, working with Steve Farrell, then senior correspondent for the region (now with Reuters, and co-author of a book on Hamas and its leaders).

Al-Arouri, solidly-faced with a neat beard, had just been released from 15 years in an Israeli jail for his role in Hamas.

We sat, with translator, on the sofa in the low two-storey house, noting the giant bouquet of plastic flowers on the low table (a common celebratory present in the area) bearing a card from Abu Mazen, leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

That was striking given the rivalry between Mazen’s Fatah party, running the West Bank, and Hamas, which had narrowly beaten Fatah in elections in Gaza the year before – and in June 2007 was to kick the PA out of Gaza entirely. 

Asked whether being in prison had been any impediment to communication with Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza, al-Arouri shrugged dismissively, claiming that it had been none at all. 

Our job is to keep the Palestinians radicalized… We need to keep them angry.

The strategy that al-Arouri set out was as coldly clear as a business school textbook. ‘Our job is to keep the Palestinians radicalized’, he said. ‘Most of them would settle in a moment for peace, some deal that will let them get on with their lives. We need to keep them angry.’

Asked how, he acknowledged that the schools had a role through the curriculum that they taught (and we had previously been to talk to the head of a boys’ school in Tulkarm, in the northern West Bank, which certainly supported that conclusion).

But ‘the [Israeli] settlements do the job even better than we can,’ he said, in keeping ordinary Palestinians enraged. ‘They move their settlements forward, we will move our schools forward.’

‘It is all your fault’, he said at one point, gesturing at me. It took a minute to establish that I represented the British and the 1917 Balfour Declaration in particular, the document that first pledged the UK’s commitment to a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

He said that Hamas, committed to the annihilation of Israel, would win in the end. ‘We plan for 1000 years.’

Asked whether it was time for Hamas to accept the existence of the state of Israel, he shrugged dismissively, saying that Hamas, committed to the annihilation of Israel, would win in the end. ‘We plan for 1000 years’, he said.

At that point (late evening), he indicated that as he had got married only several days before, while still in jail, he would like to retire to his new wife. ‘Yes, but, just two more questions’, said my colleague, known in the trade for his tenacity.

It seemed nonetheless worth making a quick exit. 

Al-Arouri was arrested again later that year and was expelled from areas controlled by Israel in 2010. From Syria and Lebanon, he became one of the most prominent spokesmen for Hamas, not reticent about giving interviews.

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There are many questions prompted by his killing. One is whether the drone strike will inflame the tension with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has no desire to open that ‘second front’ while its forces are immersed in pursuit of Hamas in Gaza. Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior advisor Mark Regev has said pointedly that ‘whoever did this, it’s not an attack on Lebanon or Hezbollah’.

Other questions are whether Israel wanted to show some success after its apparent failure to find key Hamas figures in Gaza, or whether its intelligence on Lebanon is stronger than on their movements in the chaos of the southern battle.

Another interpretation – one more encouraging for hopes of a ceasefire – could be that Israel needs a significant success before accepting a pause. 

Given that many Hamas leaders remain at large – and three of its top leaders have been living in Qatar – al-Arouri’s death alone is unlikely to have much impact on the organization other than as a sign of Israel’s commitment to hunt them down.

A new generation has been radicalized by those schools and events since I spoke to him.

But the strategy he set out is flourishing. A new generation has been radicalized by those schools and events since I spoke to him. His comments show that it is hard to eradicate Hamas as a military force alone.

Most of all, the use of Israel’s actions as a tool to recruit opponents against it is a powerful one. The expansion of the settlements has played its part, and Israel’s bombing of Gaza has inflamed criticism around the world, far beyond the Palestinians. That is the trap Hamas set for Israel on 7 October.