Israeli Strike Kills Hezbollah Commander in Lebanon

Israeli forces killed a senior Hezbollah commander in a drone strike in southern Lebanon on Wednesday, prompting the Lebanese militia to respond with heavy rocket fire across the border.

The flare-up came as Western diplomats worked to avert a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah, a danger that appears to have grown in recent weeks. Cross-border firefights have intensified, and Israeli officials have spoken publicly of shifting their military focus from Hamas in the Gaza Strip to Hezbollah, a far more advanced and potent threat.

Amos Hochstein, a senior White House adviser who has become the de facto U.S. envoy to quell the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, conferred with French officials in Paris on Wednesday to discuss ways to defuse rising tensions. Jean-Yves Le Drian, President Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy to Lebanon, was among those he met with, according to a person familiar with the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

The Israeli military said its drone strike killed Mohammad Naameh Nasser, also known as Abu Naameh, who was among the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters to die in the nearly nine-month conflict, according to a senior Lebanese intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. He said Mr. Nasser had led Hezbollah’s Aziz unit, one of the group’s main fighting forces along the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah confirmed his death, and while it did not say how he died, the group said it had fired 100 rockets at military targets across the border as part of an “initial response,” setting off sirens in communities in northern Israel. The Israeli military said most of the fire had fallen in open areas, but Hezbollah continued to claim retaliatory strikes into the evening.

A photograph of Mohammad Naameh Nasser released by Hezbollah media.Credit…Hezbollah Media Relations Office, via Associated Press

In solidarity with Hamas, Hezbollah, which is closely linked to Iran, has significantly increased the pace of its periodic attacks on northern Israel since the war in Gaza began in October. Israel has responded with attacks in Lebanon.

The killing of Mr. Naameh in a drone strike in the Tyre area on the western coast was the latest in a series of Israeli assassinations of Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon. One last month led to an escalation in fighting that the Biden administration has since struggled to contain. With tensions already high, Western analysts and diplomats have warned that the tit-for-tat attacks could lead to further escalation.

Amal Saad, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University and a Hezbollah researcher, said the powerful militia would not be drawn into an all-out war of murder, but that recent threats from Israeli officials would not stop Hezbollah from responding with force.

“I don't think Hezbollah will downplay the situation,” Saad said, adding that the rocket fire was just “a small taste of what's to come.”

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has so far remained relatively contained, but fighting has already displaced more than 150,000 people on both sides of the border. If a full-scale war were to break out, analysts said, it would most likely be catastrophic, leaving large swathes of Lebanon in ruins, prompting Hezbollah to unleash its arsenal of precision-guided missiles on Israeli cities and potentially triggering a wider regional war involving Iran. Israel’s military leadership is seeking a ceasefire with Hamas in the event of a larger war in Lebanon, according to Israeli security officials.

U.S. officials have been working for months to prevent a war between Israel and Hezbollah. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Israel “effectively lost sovereignty” near its border with Lebanon because Hezbollah attacks from across the border had forced large parts of the population from their homes. About 60,000 Israelis have fled the area, many of them living in Tel Aviv hotels for nine months.

In his speech on Monday, Mr. Blinken noted that Hezbollah had said that if a ceasefire was reached in Gaza, it would stop shooting at Israel. This “underscores why a ceasefire in Gaza is so critical,” he said.

Ceasefire talks have been stalled since June, but officials said Wednesday that mediators are working to revive them, focusing on terms based on a proposal backed by the United Nations and the United States.

For months, Israel and Hamas, which do not speak directly, have been negotiating through mediators, including Qatar and Egypt, over a potential deal for a three-phase truce in Gaza and the release of the remaining 120 living and dead hostages held there. However, large gaps remained on key issues.

Qatar sent Hamas possible new amendments to the proposed deal on Tuesday in an attempt to gain its support, according to two senior officials from different countries involved in the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

Major obstacles remain: Hamas, which controlled Gaza before the conflict, wants an end to the war and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces, while Israel has vowed to continue fighting until Hamas is destroyed and seeks to control Gaza's post-war security.

Current and former security officials in Israel say the country’s top generals want to initiate a ceasefire in Gaza, even if it keeps Hamas in power for the time being. Israel’s generals see their forces running out, both in soldiers and ammunition, as the war drags on. They believe the army needs time to recover in case a ground war with Hezbollah breaks out, the officials said.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Wednesday that Israeli forces are ready to take any necessary action against Hezbollah, but that they prefer a diplomatic solution.

“We are hitting Hezbollah very hard every day and we will also reach a state of full readiness to take any action required in Lebanon, or to reach an agreement from a position of strength,” Mr Gallant said, according to a statement from his office.

“We prefer an agreement, but if reality forces us we will know how to fight,” he added.

Michael Crowley, Ronen Bergmann, Aaron Boxer, Patrick Kingsley AND John Reiss contributed to the writing of the report.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *