January 11, 2024
Tensions with Hezbollah Grow as Gaza War Enters Low-Intensity Phase
A senior Hezbollah commander was killed in Lebanon in the second recent assassination by Israel of a terrorist leader there. The action has shown that Israel is willing to target Iran-backed forces across the border while avoiding an all-out war. His killing has not triggered a second front for Israel in its war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as analysts say Hezbollah does not want an all-out war with Israel.
The Hezbollah commander, Wissam Hassan Al-Tawil, was killed on Monday in an Israeli attack in a village in southern Lebanon. The IDF said jet fighters struck Hezbollah targets in Lebanon after a missile was launched toward northern Israel, but Israel didn’t say if Tawil’s death was related to the air strikes or if the commander had been targeted.
Tawil was a member of Hezbollah’s governing Shura Council and was related by marriage to the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. He joined Hezbollah in 1989, participated in several attacks on Israeli forces, and was seriously wounded during an attack in 1999. He was involved in the group’s weapons manufacturing and played a role in the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers that sparked the 2006 war in Lebanon in 2006.
He also played an important role in Hezbollah’s operations in support of the Syrian regime against rebel groups over the last decade before being transferred to southern Lebanon a month ago. Tawil previously had close ties to Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone strike in 2020.
Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, visiting soldiers just over the border from Lebanon on Monday, said the military would “do everything to restore security” in the area. “We prefer that this be done without a wide-ranging campaign, but that will not stop us,” he said.
Tawil’s death follows the killing last week of Saleh al-Arouri, a senior Hamas official and a linchpin of the group’s relations with Iran, in an IDF air strike on the Hezbollah stronghold of Beirut. Arouri was credited by Hamas with orchestrating the October 7th attack on Israel and played a leading role in negotiating with Israel through Qatar and Egypt for the release of Israeli hostages in exchange for a cease-fire in Gaza.
The death of Arouri last week prompted Hezbollah to launch about 40 rockets into Israel over the weekend—one of the largest such barrages in recent years. Both sides have traded fire across the winding Israel-Lebanon border almost daily since the beginning of the war in Gaza three months ago.
Nasrallah, in a speech last Friday, vowed to respond to Israeli attacks and warned that any broader war with Israel would affect residents of northern Israel first.
“They are calling on their government to go to war on Lebanon or to have a military solution for Lebanon. I tell them: this choice is a mistake, for you and your government, and the first one who will pay for this mistaken choice is you,” he said.
Israeli military leaders have repeatedly warned Hezbollah that if it fails to halt its attacks and move its forces away from the border, it risks provoking a full-scale assault.
“It’s clearly not in the interest of anyone—Israel, Lebanon, Hezbollah, for that matter—to see this escalate and to see an actual conflict,” Blinken told reporters on Monday in Saudi Arabia. “And the Israelis have been very clear with us that they want to find a diplomatic way forward that creates the kind of security that allows Israelis to return home.”
A full-scale conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could be devastating for both sides. Hezbollah’s arsenal of missiles and other weapons provided by Iran would stretch the IDF and strain Israel’s air defenses.
During Israel’s last war with Hezbollah, in 2006, Israeli warplanes bombed the Beirut airport and other infrastructure, and 263 Hezbollah fighters were killed. Since the start of the war in Gaza in October, around 154 Hezbollah fighters have been killed, mostly in Lebanon.
Israel Changes Tactics in Gaza
Israel’s defense leaders have indicated a shift in the military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip from intense battles to more targeted operations, with the military spokesperson confirming for the first time that this change is already underway.
In interviews with international media on Sunday and Monday, defense minister Yoav Gallant and IDF spokesman Daniel Hagari both noted that as the focus moves to the southern part of the densely populated Palestinian enclave, different tactics will be needed to avoid civilian casualties.
Hagari told the New York Times on Monday that the IDF had already begun a new, less intensive phase in the war against Hamas, with fewer ground troops and airstrikes.
“The war shifted a stage… But the transition will be with no ceremony. It’s not about dramatic announcements,” Hagari told the Times.
“There are still terror operatives and weapons in the north of the Gaza Strip, but they do not function within an organized military framework, and now we operate there in [a different] way and with a different mix of forces. At this stage, we are focusing on the center of the Gaza Strip and the south of the Gaza Strip. This is still an intense and complex operational activity,” Hagari said, adding that the fighting in Gaza will continue throughout 2024.
“We need to take into consideration the huge number of civilians,” Gallant told the Wall Street Journal, adding that the military tactics “take some time” to adjust.
“But we aren’t going to give up.”