Israeli Strike Kills Hezbollah Commander in Lebanon, Adding to Fears of Broader War (2024)

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Hezbollah responds to the killing of a senior commander with a cross-border rocket barrage.

Israeli forces killed a senior Hezbollah commander in a drone strike in southern Lebanon on Wednesday, prompting the Lebanese militia to retaliate with a heavy rocket barrage across the border as international diplomats scrambled to prevent an all-out war.

The commander, Mohammad Naameh Nasser, also known as Abu Naameh, was among the highest-ranking Hezbollah fighters to have been killed since the militia began firing on northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas, the armed group at war with Israel in Gaza. He led Hezbollah’s Aziz unit, one of the group’s main fighting forces along the Lebanese border, according to the Israeli military and a senior Lebanese intelligence official, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.

Hezbollah 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. The Iran-backed militia continued to claim retaliatory attacks into the evening.

The death of Mr. Naameh, which Israel’s military confirmed in a statement, was the latest in a string of Israeli killings of Hezbollah commanders in Lebanon, one of which led to an escalation in cross-border exchanges of fire last month that the Biden administration has since battled to contain. With tensions already high, analysts warned that the tit-for-tat strikes could trigger a further escalation and risk open war.

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

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

The border flare-up on Wednesday took place as a top U.S. official was in Paris to discuss with French officials how to defuse the tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Amos Hochstein, a senior White House adviser who has become the de facto U.S. envoy in the quest to resolve the border conflict, met with Jean-Yves Le Drian, President Emmanuel Macron’s special envoy to Lebanon, according to a person close to the talks, who spoke on the condition on anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.

Lebanon was a French protectorate after World War I, and France still has some influence there. The White House had no immediate comment about Mr. Hochstein’s visit.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has so far remained contained, but as exchanges of cross-border fire have intensified in recent weeks, Israeli officials have spoken publicly of shifting their military focus from Hamas to Hezbollah, a far more advanced military threat.

More than 150,000 people have already been displaced on both sides of the border. If a full-scale war were to break out, analysts say, it would likely prove catastrophic, leaving swaths of Lebanon in ruins, causing Hezbollah to unleash its arsenal of precision-guided missiles on cities across Israel and potentially setting off an even wider regional war. Israel’s military leadership has been pressing for the government to reach a cease-fire with Hamas so that Israeli fighting forces can prepare for the possibility of a war with Hezbollah, according to Israeli security officials.

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.

Euan Ward reporting from Beirut

key developments

An Israeli soldier is killed in a stabbing attack in northern Israel, and other news.

  • An Israeli soldier died after a stabbing attack in a shopping mall in the country’s north, the Israeli military said on Wednesday. The military identified the soldier as Sgt. Aleksandr Iakiminskyi, 19, and said that another soldier was severely injured in the attack, in the city of Karmiel. The Israeli police said the attacker died at the scene. Security footage posted on social media and in Israeli news media showed the soldiers walking in the mall with coffee cups in hand when someone approached from behind, then the soldiers throwing down their coffee cups and one firing repeatedly at the attacker. The Israeli military separately said that one soldier, Captain Elay Elisha Lugasi, 21, was killed in fighting in Gaza, on Wednesday. Israeli news media reported that security officials later identified the assailant as Jawwad Omar Rubia, an Israeli citizen from the nearby Palestinian town of Nahf, noting that Muhammad Zuri, the mayor of Nahf, condemned the attack.

  • Israeli forces killed at least four Palestinians in a drone strike in the West Bank late Tuesday, according to the Israeli military and the Palestinian Health Ministry. The Israeli military said in a statement that the dead were militants who were planting an explosive device in Nur Shams, a densely populated residential area. Once rare, Israel drone strikes in the West Bank have become increasingly common. A drone strike on Sunday killed a local Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander identified as Saeed Jaber, whom Israel blamed for attacks on troops and civilians.

  • An evacuation order by the Israeli military this week covering roughly a third of the Gaza Strip came as people there are less and less equipped to handle repeated forced displacements, after nearly nine months of war that have left tens of thousands dead and injured and put the territory at risk of famine. “It’s an endless cycle of death and displacement,” said Louise Wateridge, a spokeswoman for the main U.N. agency that aids Palestinians, UNRWA, in voice messages from central Gaza on Wednesday. “People express here that they are losing hope. They are losing the willpower, faced with another forced displacement and absolutely no certainty of safety.”

Israel says it is weighing Hamas responses to Qatar’s latest proffer on a cease-fire proposal.

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Mediators are working to revive indirect talks on a cease-fire in Gaza that collapsed last month, focusing on terms based on a proposal backed by the United Nations and the United States, officials said on Wednesday.

Qatar last week sent Hamas new potential amendments to the proposed deal, according to two senior officials from different countries involved in the negotiations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks.

On Wednesday, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that Israel had received Hamas’s response to the latest proposal, was examining it and would convey a response to mediators. He did not provide a timeline.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that wide gaps between the sides remained but that Hamas’s response left potential to move forward in the talks. The official declined to offer further details.

In a statement on Telegram on Wednesday night, Hamas said it had “exchanged some ideas” with mediators “aiming to stop the aggression against our Palestinian people.” It did not provide any further details.

For months, Israel and Hamas, alongside mediators including Qatar, Egypt and the United States, were in negotiations over the potential deal, which called 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 major issues, and the talks had been largely at a standstill since June.

The main stumbling blocks that need to be resolved center on a major difference: Hamas 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.

According to the two senior officials, the disagreements now largely center on two points, both related to talks on a permanent cease-fire outlined in the three-phase U.S.- and U.N.-backed deal. Those talks would take place during the first phase, a proposed six-week truce, during which some hostages would be exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

Hamas wants to limit those talks to the number and identity of Palestinian prisoners to be released for each remaining hostage, while Israel wants to leave it open-ended, so more topics could be added into the discussions, according to the two senior officials.

Hamas fears Israel might torpedo the talks by expanding them to deal with other, effectively irresolvable issues, which would allow Israel to continue the war, the officials said. The latest Qatari proposal negotiators offers Hamas three potential alternatives for the talks, according to the two senior officials, though they did not give further details. The U.S.- and U.N.-backed proposal stipulates that if Israel and Hamas cannot reach a deal on a permanent cease-fire before the six-week truce expires, negotiations will continue until they do. The two senior officials said Hamas wanted language that guaranteed Israel could not unilaterally declare that the talks had collapsed and return to battle.

In recent weeks, the United States has pushed Qatar — which hosts Hamas’s political leadership — to pressure Hamas to reach a deal with Israel, according to one of the two officials and a senior Israeli official. Qatar has now begun exerting more pressure on Hamas, said the two senior officials involved in the talks.

For months, Hamas’s and Israel’s demands have appeared irreconcilable, each reflecting their desire to shape the future of postwar Gaza. Hamas officials say they will only agree to a hostage-release deal if Israel commits to ending the war and totally withdrawing from the Gaza Strip, allowing Hamas to maintain its rule of the Palestinian enclave.

For its part, Israel has vowed to end Hamas’s rule in Gaza and destroy its military and governing capabilities. Israeli leaders have said military operations there will likely continue for months while Israeli forces chase down the remnants of Hamas’s forces across the Gaza Strip. Israeli soldiers have fortified a major corridor in central Gaza, appearing to prepare for a protracted struggle.

After President Biden publicly backed the agreement in late May, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel neither rejected the proposed agreement nor issued a full-throated endorsem*nt. Two senior members of Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right government publicly suggested they could break with his coalition if he went ahead with the deal.

But in mid-June, Hamas demanded revisions, and Israel quickly declared that Hamas had rejected the deal, while the Biden administration agreed that some of Hamas’s demands were unworkable.

Last month, Mr. Netanyahu also said in a television interview that he would only accept a “partial deal” with Hamas to release some hostages but would not countenance a premature end to the war. After fierce criticism from the families of Israeli hostages, Mr. Netanyahu publicly endorsed the deal the following day.

Ephrat Livni contributed reporting.

Ronen Bergman and Aaron Boxerman reporting from Jerusalem

Israel releases Palestinian Authority funds while claiming more West Bank land.

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Israel’s Finance Ministry transferred about $115.5 million in previously withheld tax funds to the Palestinian Authority, the ministry said on Wednesday, a move that might help ease pressure on the financially strapped Palestinian leadership in the occupied West Bank. But it was conditioned on Palestinian territorial losses that further complicated any possibility of a two-state solution.

The West Bank, which has been under Israeli military occupation since the 1967 war, is home to about 2.7 million Palestinians and is partly administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has sought to cripple the Palestinian Authority, withholding hundreds of millions in tax dollars that Israel collects on its behalf in the areas that the authority administers. This week, Mr. Smotrich agreed to release some of the money in exchange for Israeli legalization of five West Bank outposts. He also said he would extend a nearly expired waiver that allows Israeli banks to work with Palestinian financial institutions.

The legalization of the outposts will allow them to grow under Israeli law. Along with far larger and longer established Israeli settlements — all of which are considered illegal under international law — they carve into Palestinian territory that would be needed in any two-state solution.

Palestinians have long argued that the settlements are a creeping annexation, enforced by armed settlers, that is steadily pushing Arabs out of their homes and off their farms.

Israel has made other recent moves to take chunks of West Bank territory. Last week, an Israeli ministry approved the largest seizure of West Bank land since the Oslo Accords in 1993, according to Peace Now, an Israeli group that monitors settler activity. The appropriation, announced on June 25, covered about five square miles of land in the Jordan Valley. As of July, Israel has seized roughly nine square miles of the territory this year, making 2024 by far the peak year for appropriations, Peace Now said.

Mr. Smotrich is a longtime settler activist who has vowed to legalize a new Jewish outpost in the West Bank for every nation that recognizes a Palestinian state. And he indicated that the five outposts, whose legalization he negotiated, were a response to the formal recognition by Spain, Ireland, Norway, Slovenia and Armenia of an independent Palestinian state in recent months.

While building and expanding the settlements is a major aim of far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition, the practice has caused conflicts among branches of the Israeli state. Security forces responsible for dismantling illegal outposts have struggled with settlers.

That was the case on Wednesday, when the Israeli military said in a statement that clashes had broken out at a “recently constructed” illegal outpost near Givat Assaf, one of the five scheduled for legalization.

“Masked Israelis” attacked the car of a Civil Administration officer and smashed the windows, the military said. The settlers also hurled a Molotov co*cktail at a military vehicle.

Gen. Herzi Halevi, the military’s chief of staff, condemned the clashes and called for the attackers to be punished. “The law must be quickly and swiftly exacted upon the rioters who attacked the security forces as they attempted to carry out their mission,” he said.

Mr. Smotrich has not been circ*mspect about his intention to expand Israeli’s claim on West Bank territory. In a post on social media on Wednesday, he said he was meeting with the planning authorities to discuss the approval of 5,000 more housing units in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

“We’re building the good country and thwarting the creation of a Palestinian state,” he said.

Ephrat Livni

Israeli Strike Kills Hezbollah Commander in Lebanon, Adding to Fears of Broader War (2024)

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