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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Beaumont in Beirut

Israel risking serious escalation by killing Hezbollah leaders, say diplomats

The son of Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil speaking next to a portrait of his father
The son of Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil – killed in a drone attack – speaking next to a portrait of his father on Sunday. Photograph: Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s recent targeted assassinations of senior Hezbollah commanders in southern Lebanon risk a serious escalation between the two sides in their three-month border conflict, diplomats have said.

Diplomats who spoke to the Guardian said the targeted killings of two Hezbollah commanders in the aftermath of Hamas’s surprise attack on Israel in October risked rupturing the fragile understanding between the sides over what constituted a dangerous escalation.

On Sunday, in the latest worrying development on the border, a guided missile launched from Lebanon killed a 76-year-old woman and her 40-year-old son in the village of Kfar Yuval in northern Israel, hours after the Israeli military said it had killed four heavily armed militants trying to enter from Lebanon at a location about 10 miles (16km) north-east of Kfar Yuval.

Kfar Yuval is one of more than 40 towns along the northern border evacuated by the Israeli government in October. Israeli media reported that the family stayed in the area because they work in agriculture.

Smoke rises above Kfar Yuval
Smoke rises above Kfar Yuval on Sunday. Photograph: Guard Israel/Reuters

While Israel has long targeted members of Palestinian armed groups, as well as others in its sights – including key Iranian nuclear scientists – since the end of the highly destructive 2006 Lebanon war it has avoided targeting senior Hezbollah figures in intelligence-driven strikes.

That appeared to have changed with the killing of Wissam al-Tawil, a senior commander in the group’s elite Radwan force. Tawil, 58, was killed last Monday in a drone attack on his car in Khirbet Selm in southern Lebanon. A few days earlier, an Israeli strike on a Beirut suburb killed the No 2 in Hamas’s political bureau, Saleh al-Arouri.

A second Hezbollah commander, this time in its aerial forces, Ali Hussein Burji, was killed on the outskirts of Tawil’s funeral, also in a strike on a car. In the immediate aftermath, the Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, claimed responsibility in a television interview, saying: “This is part of our war. We strike on Hezbollah’s people.”

Although both sides have been firing across the Lebanon-Israel border, sometimes multiple times a day, observers have noted the targeted killings as a new departure in the conflict. “We had not seen anything like that before,” said one senior diplomat. “It definitely represents an uptick [in the conflict] and we need to see where it takes us, whether it is part of a pattern.”

Among concerns is that a new pattern of assassinations of Hezbollah figures could “stretch the elastic” of restraint to breaking point.

While conventional wisdom governing the rules between the two sides has it that military targets are acceptable, Tawil’s killing in particular has exposed a challenge for Hezbollah: the fact that some battlefield commanders are more important to the organisation than others and less easily replaceable. This was something Iran discovered after the high-profile killing of the key Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Suleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad four years ago.

“Tawil was an experienced guy who was around in 2006 [during the second Lebanon war],” said Makram Rabah, an assistant professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history at the American University of Beirut and a frequent commentator. “Tawil was like Soleimani. He can’t be easily replaced. He is someone who moved up ranks.”

For Rabah, the messaging from Israel is crystal clear in the strikes against Tawil and Burji, who was a commander in Hezbollah’s drone forces. “It’s confirmation to Hezbollah: you might send [a] barrage [of] missiles. But we know who is running these things, and we can go after them.”

Rabah sees the strike against Burji, outside the house of Tawil’s brother and in the midst of Tawil’s funeral, as another significant transgression of the “rules”. “Doing that at a funeral, knowing the cultural sensitivity, was another red line crossed. But again the message was that they know who everybody is. What is being said more widely to others is that they are alive because we don’t want to kill them. But we can kill you when we please.”

Significantly the recent killings in Lebanon have emerged in a wider context of Israeli and suspected Israeli assassinations.

Most significant before Arouri was the killing of the senior Iranian commander Sayyed Razi Mousavi in Syria on Christmas Day on a farm in Damascus – the most senior commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to be assassinated since Soleimani.

For those whose analysis hews close to that of Hezbollah’s viewpoint, the assassinations are also evidence that the rules governing the conflict over the past month are fraying seriously. “We are still in a war with some rules,” said Dr Ali Hamie, who has appeared on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television as a commentator. “The assassinations have crossed a line. We can see the signs of the war … expanding [more] than evidence of moves to stop it.”

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