Joe Biden: Gaza hospital explosion ‘done the other team,’ not Israel
President Joe Biden claimed a deadly hospital explosion in Gaza was not carried out by Israel. Hamas and Israel blame each other for the attack.
Six weeks before Hamas’ deadly attack on Israel, a deputy political advisor in the group did an interview with a Lebanese news outlet. Tucked into it was a specific warning.
“We are preparing for an all-out war,” Saleh al-Arouri said of Hamas. “We are closely discussing the prospects of this war with all relevant parties.”
At the time, his statements were couched as a caution. Israel had plans including targeted killings of leaders of the Palestinian resistance group that controls Gaza, he said. If it followed through, Arouri warned, “a regional war” would ensue.
Those Israeli provocations never happened. Yet by mid-October, an all-out war was under way. Hamas led a surprise attack on Oct. 7, killing more than 1,300 people including more than 30 Americans and taking at least 200 hostages, and a mounting response from Israel now brings more bloodshed.
Already, Israel has struck a range of targets, and by mid-week announced at least six key Hamas operatives had been “eliminated.”
But Israeli authorities also have launched an international manhunt for another Hamas leader, USA TODAY has learned: Saleh al-Arouri.
They’re pursuing him not just for his insider knowledge of the attack, but for his ties to others – possibly those “relevant parties” he cited in August.
The attack went far beyond what was expected from Hamas alone: A mass border invasion. Drones and paragliders. Withering rocket fire. Precise raids on military surveillance, communications and intelligence hubs. Those plans bear the hallmarks of sophisticated backers from the outside.
Current and former intelligence officials say Arouri sits at a strategic intersection of three entities: Hamas; Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist group that is considered the world’s most formidable; and Iran, the world’s deadliest state sponsor of terrorism.
If Iran and Hezbollah were involved in the Oct. 7 attack – as security authorities now suspect – someone from Hamas coordinated their assistance. And current and former U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials, and a USA TODAY review of government documents and court records, all point to Arouri as a key link.
“Today most of the money that is going to Hamas is coming from Iran, and with the money comes the influence too,” said Ehud “Udi” Levy, who served for more than 30 years in Israeli intelligence, including as head of the Mossad’s Economic Warfare Division that goes after terrorists’ money. ”And the Iran man inside Hamas is Saleh al-Arouri.”
More: Is Iran behind Hamas terrorist attacks? What it would mean for US and Middle East security
While experts said they do not yet know what specific role Arouri might have played on Oct. 7, they see him at the heart of a changing − and alarming − dynamic in which these three U.S.-designated terrorist entities are teaming up and further destabilizing the Middle East under the direction of Tehran.
“With him, I cannot go into details about the involvement,” Danny Danon, an Israeli lawmaker who sits on the Knesset foreign affairs committee, told USA TODAY this week when asked about Arouri. “But I can tell you that Iran is heavily involved with everything that’s happening in Gaza – the training, equipment, funding and method of fighting,”
“We have knowledge of collaboration between Tehran, Beirut and Gaza,” said Danon, who was also Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. “We are worried that the technology came from Tehran to Beirut and to Gaza.”
And Arouri, he said, “was heavily involved in that triangle.”
Arouri was a founding commander of the the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas that carried out the attacks.
Despite having spent years under U.S. terror sanctions, and with a $5 million State Department bounty on his head, he has traveled the region, including in and out of Iran, and collaborated with terrorist figures including the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qasem Soleimani, before he was killed by a U.S. airstrike.
And Arouri helped build and lead a new Hamas coalition with Iran and Hezbollah that so alarmed Israel, it sought emergency help from the United Nations Security Council in 2017 and again in 2018 to stop him.
Arouri is based in Lebanon, where numerous media reports say Hamas leaders met with top Iranian and Hezbollah officials as recently as April. Now, he’s a prime target as Israel seeks out the strategists behind Oct. 7.
But even after being watched by international authorities for decades, Arouri might not be easy to catch or kill.
“They are looking for him like the Americans were looking for Bin Laden” after Sept. 11, Levy said. “He is a shadow guy. He is under the radar. And believe me, these are the dangerous people, people like that.”
‘If he steps anywhere close we will kill him’
Publicly, Israel is pointing the finger at more well-known Hamas figures based in Gaza, including Yahya Sinwar and military chief Mohammed Deif.
“Yahya Sinwar, the ruler of the Gaza Strip, decided on this horrible attack, and therefore he — and the entire hierarchy under him — are dead men,” Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi said Oct. 12 in his first public statement since the war began. “We will attack them, we will dismantle them, dismantle their system.”
Arouri lacks the same profile. One of his current titles is deputy chief of Hamas’ political bureau, but sources say Arouri’s role in Hamas has become much more prominent than that. In addition to still playing a role in the Qassam Brigades, Arouri has spent years helping rebuild Hamas operations in the other Palestinian territory blockaded by Israel, the West Bank, according to former Israeli and U.S. counterterrorism officials who have tracked him.
And, they say, he acts as a chief deputy of sorts to Ismail Haniyeh, one of several Hamas leaders based in Qatar as they try to do political outreach for the group, including to Iran and Hezbollah.
Five days after the attacks, Arouri offered Al Jazeera Arabic some of the first inside details about the operation, including how 1,200 members of the Qassam Brigades had been given “detailed instructions” about their targets, the Israeli military’s Gaza Brigade, just across the border from the Gaza Strip.
“We were surprised that the Gaza Brigade collapsed in less than three hours, faster than we expected,” Arouri said.
Officially, Iran has denied playing a role in the attack even as it congratulates Hamas. President Joe Biden told 60 Minutes on Oct. 15 that there’s no evidence “at this point” that Iran was behind the attack. Israeli officials have made similar comments, stressing that the investigation is in its early stages.
But U.S. and Israeli intelligence analysts say that if anyone could give the group the ability to launch such stunning land, air and sea attacks against the Israeli military, it would be Iran and its Revolutionary Guard. Even as the hunt for Arouri continued this week, Iran and Hezbollah both raised prospects of openly entering the conflict to respond to Israel’s strikes at Gaza.
Arouri’s role as an alliance-builder among terrorist organizations has been known to Israel since at least 2018. And his role in raising money and plotting terrorist attacks for Hamas has been known to both governments for a generation.
“It’s not just the guys who pulled the trigger or approved the battle plan or gave the final order to do it but the people who are directing all of the strategy and really promoting the (anti-Israel) militarism,” said former FBI counterterrorism analyst and U.S. Treasury terror finance official Matthew Levitt. “And that’s Saleh al-Arouri.”
Yet he has evaded authorities for years.
“He knows that if he steps anywhere close, we will kill him,” a former top Israeli intelligence official until earlier this year told USA TODAY. “He was on the run. You can imagine that there were several plans regarding that, but it just didn’t happen.”
A militant from an early age
Born in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Arouri became a fixture in pro-Palestinian activity in the mid-1980s at Hebron University, where he studied Sharia, or Islamic law.
Security officials in Israel and the U.S. say Arouri joined Hamas soon after it was formed in late 1987 at the beginning of the first Palestinian intifada, or uprising. He quickly graduated from being a leader of its on-campus youth organization to founding the Qassam Brigades in the name of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in place of Israel.
By the early 1990s, the Qassam Brigades began conducting anti-Israel attacks in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, U.S. and Israeli documents and interviews show. Those included large-scale bombings and rocket attacks, according to the U.S. Directorate of National Intelligence and the National Counterterrorism Center, which it oversees.
In 2003, the Justice Department named Arouri as an unindicted co-conspirator in a racketeering case against three Hamas operatives in Chicago who were charged with financing terrorism. In the indictment, Arouri was described as a high-ranking Hamas military leader who had received tens of thousands of dollars for terrorist activities including buying weapons.
But Arouri was being investigated by the U.S. even before then.
“The U.S. government has been aware of Arouri since the late 1990s when he was senior activist in the West Bank,” said Levitt, who worked at the FBI from 1998 to 2001.
Israeli authorities detained and incarcerated Arouri three times, though he continued his Hamas activity even while in an Israeli prison in Ashkelon, the Justice Department indictment alleged.
Arouri was arrested again in 2007 but freed in 2011 when Israel released more than 1,000 prisoners in exchange for an Israeli soldier who had been captured by Hamas in 2006.
All told, Arouri ultimately spent about 15 years in Israeli prisons, Levy, Levitt and others say.
Upon his final release, he was forced out of Gaza for being a continuing threat to Israel and moved to the Syrian capital of Damascus to join Hamas leadership in exile there.
With the outbreak of civil war in Syria, Arouri was on the move again. He spent time in Turkey, where he began building an operational Hamas presence, in Qatar, where Hamas’ political leadership resided, and Lebanon.
In 2014, Arouri announced that Hamas was responsible for a June 2014 terrorist attack that included the kidnap and murder of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, one of which was dual U.S.-Israeli citizen Naftali Fraenkel, the State Department said. He publicly praised the murders, which sparked Hamas’ month-long war with Israel that year, as a “heroic operation,” State Department documents show.
With his alleged involvement of the murder of a U.S. citizen, Arouri was high on the U.S. government’s list of terror targets.
In September 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, saying he served as “a key financier and financial facilitator for Hamas military cells.”
U.S. documents in support of that action say Arouri directed Hamas’ military operations in the West Bank, and that he had been linked to several terrorist attacks, hijackings, and kidnappings.
In June 2017, Qatar expelled six Hamas members, including Arouri, the State Department said in its annual Country Reports on Terrorism. The move came amid intense pressure on Qatar by Washington to crack down on its longstanding role in providing safe haven for terrorists.
Two months later, Arouri was instrumental in patching up relations between Hamas and Tehran.
Iran’s history of providing money, weapons, training and technological support to Hamas actually goes back to the early 1990s, said Jonathan Schanzer, a former Treasury Department terror finance analyst and author of four books on Middle East politics.
Arouri “put to rest” a feud with Iran over the civil war in Syria and began to forge closer links with Hezbollah from his new base of operations in Lebanon, said Schanzer.
In November 2018, the U.S. State Department’s Rewards for Justice program offered up to a $5 million bounty for information on Arouri.
At the time, the State Department said, Arouri was “currently living freely in Lebanon, where he reportedly is working with Qasem Soleimani, leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force.”
Israel was so alarmed by these developments that Danon, as its ambassador to the United Nations, sent two urgent requests for intervention, the first in 2017, to the president of the UN Security Council.
“The increasing cooperation between Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran constitutes a major threat not only to Israel but to the stability and security of the entire region,” Danon wrote in his May 11, 2018 follow-up letter, a copy of which was obtained by USA TODAY.
The new alliance, including meetings of top operatives and pledges of mutual support, Danon wrote, was being led by Arouri and Saeed Izadi, head of the Palestinian Branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s elite Quds Force.
Hamas also was building its own military force covertly in Lebanon, Danon wrote, warning that it by then had built the infrastructure it needed to manufacture its own missiles and drones.
In the recent past, one of Arouri’s jobs has been to bring Hamas fighters from the Qassam Brigades to Lebanon for specialized training, Danon said in an interview this week.
Arouri now travels to and from Iran but mostly stays in Lebanon, where Hezbollah’s power as a political and military force provide him with protection, former security officials told USA TODAY.
Asked if Israel knows his current whereabouts, Danon said: “I cannot comment on that.”
On Oct. 7, the kind of weaponry Danon warned about – including drones – figured in the sophisticated Hamas attack, launched from Gaza. As Hamas forces raided Israeli towns, one of their first targets was the coastal city of Ashkelon, where Arouri had spent so many years in jail.
Building a regional terror alliance
In the aftermath of the Oct. 7 attack, the FBI and other U.S. agencies have joined Israel in its response – and its investigation, according to Attorney General Merrick Garland and other Biden administration officials.
That includes the hunt for at least 13 Americans who may be still held hostage by Hamas, the dragnet for Hamas foot soldiers believed to be hiding inside Israel and the broader investigation into who orchestrated and led the sophisticated invasion, two U.S. intelligence officials told USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing investigations.
If the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. are any guide, it could be months or even years before authorities answer those questions in detail.
Iran has signaled a more aggressive approach to Israel, including a warning this week about potential Iranian action against Israel for its response in Gaza. Hezbollah has issued similar warnings.
Iran’s suspected involvement in the planning of the Gaza raid has been widely reported. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, who is in charge of supervising Iran’s network of proxy militias as head of the country’s paramilitary Quds Force, repeatedly traveled to Lebanon for covert sessions with leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, the New York Times reported from the region.
Iran also has supported Hamas militarily, it said, “and has helped it design and produce a domestic missile and rocket system to match the capabilities and material available in Gaza.”
And Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah “held an hourslong online meeting in March with an elite group of strategists from all the Iran-backed militias and told them to get ready for a war with Israel with a scope and reach — including a ground invasion — that would mark a new era,” the Times reported, citing two participants from Iran and Syria.
But media coverage has not yet focused on Arouri’s role in those relationships.
Neither did senior Trump administration Iran official Richard Goldberg when he mentioned the existence of a Lebanon-based intelligence center for the three groups during a public event Monday.
Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah, Goldberg said, “have coordinated a fusion cell in Beirut since 2021 where they put everybody together in a war room, an intel room operations room, they go in and out of Lebanon… and they coordinated it all.”
The former top Israeli security official confirmed to USA TODAY the existence of the joint Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas intelligence center in Beirut.
“They have representatives there, they coordinate their actions, they share information, they share intel. The purpose of that, of course, is to enhance their joint capabilities,” the former official, who left Israeli government earlier this year, said in an interview.
Asked if Arouri played a role in the center, the official said, “Yes of course. I’m not sure if he is the person that is representing (Hamas) there but clearly he has participated in joint meetings over there.”
Goldberg, the Director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the White House National Security Council from 2019 to 2020, said he believed the strong cooperation between Hamas, Iran and Hezbollah helped them keep the plot away from Israeli intelligence, just like al-Qaeda kept the 9/11 plot away from the U.S.
“And so if you don’t have any intel on the planning of the attack, it stands to reason you have no intel on Iran’s involvement in said attack plans,” Goldberg said. “Of course you don’t have the intel. You’re not going to find the intel. There was no intel (because) there was a catastrophic intelligence failure.”
Rep. Brad Schneider (D-IL), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, also said all signs point to Iran, given its role in funding, training and equipping Hamas fighters.
“If you breed an attack dog, you train an attack dog, you equip an attack dog, maybe you’re surprised that the dog breaks through the fence and attacks, but you’re still responsible for that attack,” Schneider said. “And Iran has been training Hamas, has been equipping Hamas, funding Hamas, and this has the fingerprints of (Iran) training and planning all the way through.”
The hunt for Arouri may reveal more of those plans, but for now, he appears only in his media statements.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, just after the attack, he described his view of the Israeli response to come.
“The occupation knows that its invasion of Gaza will turn the battle into a catastrophe for its army,” he said, according to a Palestine Chronicle translation. “Before our operation began, the defensive plan was ready, and it is much stronger than the offensive plan. … We do not see a future for this battle except victory.”