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On escalation in the Middle East: the danger of a regional war is growing

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From the moment that the full extent of the 7 October atrocities by Hamas in southern Israel became evident, the spectre of an ensuing regional conflict loomed in the background. Since then, attention has been fixed on Israel’s pummelling of Gaza, where the death toll passed 22,000 this week, according to Palestinian health authorities. Yet in recent weeks the risk of a greater conflagration has grown.

The assassination of the senior Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut marks a new and dangerous moment, as Israel (which did not publicly claim responsibility) will have known. Arouri was the group’s key conduit to Lebanon-based Hezbollah and to Iran. His death is a blow not only to Hamas but the broader network. It follows last week’s killing – which Tehran blames on Israel – of an Iranian military official who oversaw the shipping of arms to Hezbollah.

Hezbollah and Israel have been trading missiles, airstrikes and shelling with increased intensity over the past three months, but both have calibrated their actions. Yet in the wake of 7 October, there is a growing belief in Israeli society and politics that the threat from Hezbollah must be dealt with. Negotiations for the group to withdraw above the Litani river in Lebanon looked like a conceivable long shot; less so now. Israeli ministers and officials had warned that the diplomatic timeline was running out, and troops withdrawn from Gaza have been moved to the north.

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Hezbollah will not want be caught out, but will also be wary of precipitating intensified fighting. While Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, had warned that any assassination on Lebanese soil would meet “a decisive response”, reaction to Arouri’s killing may not be immediate. The group needs to maintain its credibility as a major regional force, and its Iranian backers do not want to see Hamas destroyed. But Lebanese society does not want to get drawn into another war. For now, Hezbollah may continue watching Israel burn through military resources in Gaza and fuel widespread moral outrage – saving its armoury and leaving the burden of the fighting to Hamas, with additional distraction from Yemen-based Houthi forces.

Houthi attacks on ships in the Red Sea – with Iranian involvement, claims US intelligence – had already spurred grave concerns about escalation. Joe Biden said he wanted to avoid direct clashes with the Houthis for that reason. But on Sunday, the US military said that its helicopters had killed fighters who fired on them when they came to the aid of a container ship, and the US and UK are reportedly considering attacking bases in Yemen. Then on Wednesday came the bombing of a ceremony in Iran to mark the fourth anniversary of the US’s assassination of Qassem Suleimani, the Revolutionary Guards commander, reportedly killing almost 100 people. Islamic State and other groups have launched attacks in the country before. Whoever is responsible, it underscores the risks of misjudgments and manipulation in a highly flammable situation with multiple parties pursuing their own agendas.

Strikingly, US officials say that Israel did not inform it of Arouri’s killing in advance. Washington’s urging and scolding have limited impact when all know that it will not halt military aid, whatever the cost. But every effort must be made to pursue a deal that could reassure Israelis in the north, and to restrain an Israeli effort to clear Hezbollah forcibly from southern Lebanon which could lead to disaster for the region.

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