Israel Kills a Top Commander of Hezbollah, Which Replies With a Rocket Barrage

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

The flare-up came as Western diplomats worked to avoid a full-scale war between Israel and Hezbollah, a danger that appears to have grown in recent weeks. Cross-border exchanges of fire have intensified, and Israeli officials have publicly spoken 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 in tamping down the Israel-Hezbollah conflict, conferred on Wednesday with French officials in Paris to discuss how to defuse the rising tensions. Jean-Yves Le Drian, President Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy to Lebanon, was among the people with whom he met, according to a person close to the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

The Israeli military said its drone strike had killed Mohammad Naameh Nasser, also known as Abu Naameh, who was among the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters to die in nearly nine months of conflict, according to a senior Lebanese intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. 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 though it did not explicitly say how he had died, the group said it had fired 100 rockets at military targets over the border as part of an “initial response,” setting off sirens in communities across northern Israel. The Israeli military said that most of that barrage had fallen in open areas, but Hezbollah continued to claim retaliatory attacks into the evening.

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

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

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

Amal Saad, a lecturer at Cardiff University who researches Hezbollah, said that the powerful militia would not allow itself to be dragged into an all-out war over the killing, but that recent threats by Israeli officials would not deter Hezbollah from responding with strength.

“I don’t think Hezbollah will downplay this,” Ms. Saad said, adding that the rocket barrage was only “a small teaser of what is to come.”

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has so far remained fairly contained, but the 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 very likely prove catastrophic, leaving swaths of Lebanon in ruins, prompting Hezbollah to unleash its arsenal of precision-guided missiles on cities across Israel, and potentially setting off a wider regional war involving Iran. Israel’s military leadership is seeking a cease-fire with Hamas in case a larger war breaks out in Lebanon, according to Israeli security officials.

U.S. officials have worked for months to prevent a war between Israel and Hezbollah. On Monday, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that Israel “has effectively lost sovereignty” near the border with Lebanon because Hezbollah attacks launched from across the border had driven much of the population from their homes. Some 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, Mr. Blinken noted that Hezbollah had said that if a cease-fire were reached in Gaza, it would stop firing into Israel. That “underscores why a cease-fire in Gaza is so critical,” he said.

The cease-fire talks have been deadlocked since June, but officials said Wednesday that mediators were 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 talk directly with each other, have negotiated through mediators, including Qatar and Egypt, over a potential deal for a three-stage truce in Gaza and the release of the remaining 120 living and dead hostages held there. However, wide gaps remained on key issues.

Last Tuesday, Qatar sent Hamas new potential amendments to the proposed deal in an effort to win over 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.

The main stumbling blocks remain: Hamas, which controlled Gaza before the conflict, wants an end to the war and a full withdrawal of Israeli forces, while Israel has vowed to keep fighting until Hamas is destroyed and seeks control over postwar security in Gaza.

Current and former security officials in Israel say the country’s top generals want to start a cease-fire in Gaza even if it keeps Hamas in power for the time being. Israel’s generals see their forces being stretched thin, in both soldiers and munitions, as the war drags on. They believe the military needs time to recuperate in case a ground war with Hezbollah breaks out, the officials said.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said on Wednesday that Israeli forces were prepared to take any action necessary against Hezbollah, but that they preferred a diplomatic settlement.

“We are striking 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 arrangement from a position of strength,” said Mr. Gallant, according to a statement from his office.

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

Michael Crowley, Ronen Bergman, Aaron Boxerman, Patrick Kingsley and Johnatan Reiss contributed reporting.

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