Hezbollah says Israel kills top commander amid fears of Gaza war escalation

Israel and the Lebanese armed group have frequently exchanged cross-border fire over the past three months.

senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil
This undated picture released by Hezbollah Military Media, shows senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, who was killed in Kherbet Selem village, south Lebanon, on Monday [Hezbollah Military Media, via AP]

Israel has killed top Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil in an air strike in southern Lebanon, the Lebanese armed group says.

Hezbollah on Monday announced the killing of one of its commanders for the first time in three months of cross-border clashes with Israeli forces.

Al-Tawil, 58, also known as “Jawad”, was the deputy head of a unit in the elite Radwan force.

The Lebanese state-run National News Agency reported that the attack was carried out by an Israeli drone about 10:15am (08:15 GMT) on the road to al-Dabshah in the town of Khirbet Selm in the Bint Jbeil district and it killed two people.

There was no immediate comment from Israel.

Who is Wissam Al-Tawil?

Al-Tawil is the highest-ranking Hezbollah member to be killed since the Israel-Hamas war began.

Hezbollah said he joined the group in 1989 and that he participated in several “qualitative” operations against Israeli forces during the occupation of southern Lebanon before 2000 and suffered serious wounds during an attack in 1999.

According to Hezbollah, al-Tawil was also part of an operation that captured two Israeli soldiers in 2006. Israel retaliated by launching a full-scale offensive against Hezbollah that would become known as the Second Lebanon War in Israel and the July War in Lebanon.

Al-Tawil also fought in Syria, where the Lebanese group fought alongside government forces against the country’s opposition.

Since October 7, Hezbollah said, he had led several attacks against Israeli army positions across the Lebanese border “in support of the Palestinian people in Gaza and their honourable and courageous resistance”.

‘Fears of wider conflict’

Like the assassination of Hamas’s deputy leader last week in Beirut, al-Tawil’s killing has raised fears of a wider conflict.

Hezbollah said the killing of Salah al-Arouri, which Hamas and Hezbollah said was also caused by an Israeli air strike, “will not go unpunished”, and it claimed responsibility for an attack on an Israeli military base on Saturday.

Reporting from Ibil El Saqi in Lebanon, Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan said Israeli authorities held al-Tawil responsible for rocket attacks on the Meron air surveillance base.

Khan said the killing of al-Tawil would be a “setback” for Iran-backed Hezbollah.

“It’s going to be something that they will feel, but it is not going to stop them. The way Hezbollah is set up is that there are people who are always ready to replace commanders and fighters who have been killed on the battlefield.”

After the killing, sirens warning of rocket attacks were activated across northern Israel along the border with Lebanon.

Jamal Ghosn, a political commentator in Beirut, told Al Jazeera that a change has occurred in the fighting between Israel and armed Lebanese and Palestinian groups in the past week or so in which Israel has resorted to targeted killings of people who are not directly involved on the battlefield.

“Hezbollah will definitely respond to al-Tawil’s assassination either as part of its ongoing operations or through a single event,” he said.

Gaza war spreading?

Hezbollah has lost more than 130 fighters in Israeli shelling on southern Lebanon, and al-Tawil’s killing has further raised fears that the war in Gaza is spilling over to Lebanon and elsewhere.

The killing comes as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting countries in the Middle East to try to calm what he has called a “moment of profound tension” in the region.

In a televised address last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned Israel not to launch a full-scale war on Lebanon. “Whoever thinks of war with us … will regret it,” he said.

The United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon has warned that any escalation along the Israeli-Lebanese border “could have devastating consequences for people on both sides of the border”.

Leaders across the globe, including the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, have made similar statements and warned that “nobody will win from a regional conflict”.

Sheikh Ali Damoush, deputy chairman of Hezbollah’s executive council, said the group will not engage in any discussion on cross-border clashes until the Israelis stop their “aggression against Gaza”.

“The Israeli predicament is deepening day after day as the war lasts because the longer the aggression continues, the more and more exhausted the enemy becomes, whether on the Gaza front or on the Lebanon front,” Damoush said at a ceremony commemorating a Hezbollah fighter, Abdul Jalil Ali Hamza, who was killed in the town of al-Khader in the Bekaa Valley.

“There is no choice but to stop the aggression.”

Meanwhile, according to a report by the Israeli daily Haaretz, Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib said the country is ready to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which states Hezbollah forces will not deploy south of the Litani River and the Lebanese army will control all of Lebanon, up to the border with Israel.

The minister also said Israel “must fully withdraw from all the Lebanese territories and stop its land, sea and air violations”.

At a meeting with soldiers in northern Israel on Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to do “whatever it takes” to uphold security in the region.

“We, of course, prefer that this not be done in a broad campaign, but that will not stop us,” Netanyahu said.

“They must not mess with us.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies