IDF: Hezbollah drone chief behind attacks on north killed in Israeli strike

Strike on Ali Hussein Burji, at funeral of another slain terror commander, comes after drone attack on IDF Northern Command headquarters

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Smoke billows following an IDF strike on the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila near the border with Israel on January 9, 2024. (Rabih DAHER / AFP)
Smoke billows following an IDF strike on the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Kila near the border with Israel on January 9, 2024. (Rabih DAHER / AFP)

A senior Hezbollah commander responsible for dozens of explosive drone attacks on northern Israel in recent months, including an attack Tuesday morning on an Israel Defense Forces base, was killed later Tuesday in an Israeli airstrike in the south of Lebanon.

The spike in violence comes despite efforts by the international community to keep the fighting across Israel’s northern border from escalating into a full-blown conflict.

Ali Hussein Burji was the commander of Hezbollah’s aerial forces in southern Lebanon, responsible for the launching of explosive-laden unmanned aircraft at northern Israel and flying surveillance drones to collect intelligence, according to the IDF.

The strike took place in the town of Khirbet Selm, according to Lebanese media, shortly before the funeral of another senior Hezbollah commander, Wissam al-Tawil, who was killed in an alleged Israeli strike on Monday.

Hezbollah later formally announced the death of Burji, saying he was killed “on the road to Jerusalem,” a euphemism it uses to eulogize its fighters.

In an evening press conference, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari confirmed the military had carried out the strike.

“In the north today, we eliminated the commander of Hezbollah’s aerial forces in southern Lebanon,” Hagari said.

He said Burji carried out “dozens of operations using drones against Israel,” including an attack earlier in the day on the Northern Command headquarters.

While acknowledging Burji’s death, Hezbollah put out an unusual statement denying the terror group’s drone commander was killed. The IDF had claimed Burji was the chief of the drone unit in southern Lebanon, not the top commander.

“The commander was never subjected to any assassination attempt as the enemy claimed,” a Hezbollah statement said.

Burji was killed just three hours after two explosives-laden drone launched by Hezbollah blew up in the IDF Northern Command headquarters in Safed.

Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack, which struck a major IDF command center, and said it had launched “a number of explosive attack drones” at the base in response to the alleged Israeli assassinations of al-Tawil on Monday and top Hamas official Saleh al-Arouri in Lebanon last week.

The IDF confirmed the incident, which triggered a number of hostile aircraft invasion alerts and rocket sirens in northern communities including Safed, Ayelet Hashachar, Avivim, Yiftah, Dishon, and Biriyeh.

The army said there were no casualties in the strike, but minor damage was caused by the two drones. Footage shared on social media showed smoke rising from a parking lot in the base and slight damage to a nearby building.

The IDF said it had launched interceptor missiles at several more “aerial targets” that entered Israeli airspace from Lebanon, and added that several rockets and missiles were also fired from Lebanon at the Malkia and Yiftah areas on the border.

Separately, the IDF said it carried out a series of strikes on Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon’s Kafr Kila on Tuesday morning, and said that a drone-launching squad was hit before it could carry out an attack.

Later Tuesday, the IDF said it carried out further airstrikes on several Hezbollah targets in Kafr Kila and Yaroun.

It said troops also shelled areas in southern Lebanon with artillery, presumably to foil planned Hezbollah attacks.

On Tuesday afternoon, several missiles and rockets were launched from Lebanon at northern Israel, as well as a number of “hostile aerial targets,” according to the IDF.

The IDF said one of the aerial targets was downed by air defenses, and “all the events are now over.”

A minibus passes the attacked car that was used by senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, who was killed on January 8, in south Lebanon, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Meanwhile, two sources familiar with Hezbollah told the Reuters news agency that three members of the Iran-aligned group were killed in a targeted strike on their vehicle in the town of Ghandouriyeh in the south of Lebanon.

Hezbollah later announced the deaths of three members, naming them as Sharif Sayyid Nasser, Issa Ali Nour a-Din and Hassan Abdel Hussein Ismail.

Since October 8, Hezbollah has launched hundreds of rockets, drones and anti-tank missiles over the border in support of fellow Iran-backed terror group Hamas amid Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which followed Hamas’s October 7 massacre in southern Israel. The daily exchanges of fire on the restive northern frontier have appeared to intensify in recent days.

The alleged assassinations will likely also complicate US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s bid to keep Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip from expanding into a second front, as the top US diplomat makes a whirlwind tour to the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Blinken arrived in Israel on Tuesday and is expected to also visit the West Bank during his two-day stay, before wrapping up his trip in Egypt.

Israel has threatened to go to war against Hezbollah if the strikes do not halt, with some 80,000 people from northern Israel currently displaced by the fighting, alongside tens of thousands from the south evacuated due to the Hamas onslaught and ensuing war.

The skirmishes have resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 158 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 19 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

The US is still hoping to keep fighting at a low boil, with analysts saying all-out war would devastate both Lebanon and Israel, due to Hezbollah’s vast firepower.

“This is a moment of profound tension for the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and suffering,” Blinken told reporters in Doha on Sunday.

Since October 8 — a day after thousands of Hamas terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and kidnapped over 240 in southern Israel — Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the northern border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

Agencies and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Most Popular
read more: