Lebanese Hezbollah commander killed in Israeli attack

Israeli forces killed a senior Hezbollah commander in a drone strike in southern Lebanon on Wednesday, prompting Lebanese militias to retaliate with heavy rocket attacks from across the border.

The escalation comes as Western diplomats try to avert an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah, the risk of which has appeared to grow in recent weeks. Cross-border gun battles have intensified and Israeli officials have publicly vowed to shift their military focus from Hamas in the Gaza Strip to Hezbollah, a much more advanced and powerful threat.

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

The Israeli military said the drone strike killed Mohammed Na’ameh Nasser, also known as Abu Na’ameh, one of the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters killed in the nearly nine-month conflict, according to a senior Lebanese intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. Nasser led the Aziz Force, one of Hezbollah’s main fighting units along the Lebanese border, the official said.

Hezbollah confirmed his death but did not specify the cause. The group said it had fired 100 rockets at military targets on the border and sounded sirens in communities in northern Israel as part of an “initial response.” The Israeli military said most of the barrage hit open areas, but Hezbollah continued to claim there had been retaliatory attacks into the evening.

A photo of Mohammed Naameh Nasser released by Hezbollah media.credit…Hezbollah Media Relations Office via The Associated Press

Hezbollah, which has close ties with Iran, has significantly increased the pace of its regular attacks on northern Israel since the start of the Gaza war in October in solidarity with Hamas. Israel has retaliated with attacks in Lebanon.

Naameh’s killing in a drone strike in the west coast region of Tyre was the latest in a series of Israeli assassinations of Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon. Last month’s assassination sparked an escalation of fighting that the Biden administration has struggled to contain since. With tensions rising, analysts and Western diplomats have warned that retaliatory strikes could lead to further tensions.

Amal Saad, a lecturer at Cardiff University who studies Hezbollah, said the powerful militia would not get embroiled in an all-out war over the killings, but that the latest threats from Israeli authorities would not deter Hezbollah from responding forcefully.

“I don’t think Hezbollah will take this lightly,” Saad said, adding that the rocket attack was “just a small preview of what’s to come.”

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has remained fairly contained for now, but fighting has already displaced more than 150,000 people on both sides of the border. Analysts say an all-out war would likely be very devastating, leaving large swaths of Lebanon in ruins and allowing Hezbollah to fire precision-guided missiles at cities across Israel and spark a broader regional war involving Iran. Israeli security officials say Israeli military leaders are calling for a ceasefire with Hamas in case a larger war breaks out in Lebanon.

U.S. officials have been trying for months to prevent a war between Israel and Hezbollah. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said Israel had “effectively lost sovereignty” near the Lebanese border after Hezbollah attacks from the other side forced many of the residents from their homes. About 60,000 Israelis have fled the area, many of whom have been living in Tel Aviv hotels for the past nine months.

In his remarks on Monday, Blinken noted that Hezbollah had said it would stop attacks on Israel if a ceasefire was reached in Gaza. “This underscores why a ceasefire in Gaza is so important,” he said.

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

Israel and Hamas have not held direct talks but have been negotiating for months through intermediaries including Qatar and Egypt to reach an agreement on a three-phase ceasefire in Gaza and the release of the remaining 120 hostages held there, dead or alive, but remain widely divided on key issues.

Qatar sent Hamas new amendments to the proposed agreement last Tuesday in an attempt to win its support, said two senior officials from different countries involved in the negotiations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive discussions.

The main obstacle remains: Hamas, which controlled Gaza before the conflict, wants an end to the hostilities and a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops, while Israel has vowed to keep fighting until Hamas is destroyed and wants to maintain security in Gaza after the war.

Current and former Israeli security officials say the country’s top brass want to initiate a ceasefire in Gaza even if Hamas remains in power for the time being. Israeli generals believe their forces are stretched thin in both soldiers and ammunition as the war drags on. Officials say they believe the army needs time to recuperate in case a ground battle with Hezbollah breaks out.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Wednesday that the Israeli military was ready to take any necessary action against Hezbollah but preferred a diplomatic solution.

“We strike hard at Hezbollah every day and remain fully prepared to take any action necessary in Lebanon or reach an agreement from a position of strength,” Gallant said in a statement from his office.

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

Michael Crowley, Ronen Bergman, Aaron Boxerman, Patrick Kingsley and Jonathan Rice Contributed report.

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