IDF kills Hezbollah rocket specialist amid rare 3-day lull in terror group’s fire

Biden aide said to warn Israeli leaders full-blown war with Hezbollah would include difficult-to-thwart Iranian attack; far-right activists hold virtual confab on settling Lebanon

Relatives visit the graves of killed Hezbollah fighters during Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura near the border with Israel on June 17, 2024. (Photo by Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)
Relatives visit the graves of killed Hezbollah fighters during Eid al-Adha, or the Feast of Sacrifice in the southern Lebanese town of Naqoura near the border with Israel on June 17, 2024. (Photo by Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces killed a senior member of Hezbollah’s rocket unit in a drone strike in southern Lebanon Monday morning, as a top Biden administration official was in Jerusalem for meetings with Israeli leaders aimed at preventing further escalation along the northern border.

Both the army and Hezbollah identified Muhammad Ayoub as the individual killed in the strike on the village of Salaa, in the Tyre district.

Ayoub served in the rocket unit of Hezbollah’s Nasr regional division, according to the IDF, which said that he had been behind several recent rocket attacks on Israel in addition to planning other attacks. The commander of the Nasr unit, Taleb Abdullah, was killed in a strike last week.

The strike came amid a very rare lull in attacks by Hezbollah on Israel that by Tuesday morning was nearing three days.

The last time the terror group claimed to have fired at northern Israel was on Saturday afternoon, with a drone attack on a military position.

The lull coincided with the four-day Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha. It may also have been tied to a visit to the region by Amos Hochstein, who has been the Biden administration’s point man on Israel-Hezbollah tensions.

Hochstein was in Jerusalem on Monday for meetings with Israeli leaders aimed at preventing a full-blown war from breaking out with Hezbollah.

He met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, President Isaac Herzog and Opposition chairman Yair Lapid.

In his meetings, Hochstein warned that an all-out war with Hezbollah could spark a massive Iranian attack that Israel would have a hard time thwarting, according to an unsourced report in the Haaretz newspaper.

Hochstein was seeking to use the lull in Hezbollah fire to again try and develop a framework for a future ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hezbollah, Haaretz said.

Biden officials have been clear, though, that it wouldn’t be possible to implement such a deal until there is first a ceasefire in Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets with US Special Envoy Amos Hochstein in Jerusalem, June 17, 2024. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

With Israel’s operations in the southernmost city of Rafah expected to wind down in the coming weeks, Hochstein hopes that this will allow for a further de-escalation on the northern border, even if there isn’t a complete ceasefire, Haaretz said.

Hochstein appeared “more worried” about the prospect of further escalation on this trip than he did on his previous three wartime visits, one unnamed Israeli official told the paper.

The US envoy’s meeting with Netanyahu was attended by Dermer and Hanegbi, members of an ad-hoc decision-making group that has reportedly succeeded the now-defunct war cabinet following National Unity chair Benny Gantz’s departure last week. The new forum has a similar modus operandi, though — preventing far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir from influencing decision-making on sensitive security matters.

White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby was asked during a Monday press briefing whether the US thinks a full-blown war between Israel and Hezbollah can still be avoided.

“If we were so sure of that, we probably wouldn’t have Amos traveling over there. We’re concerned about it obviously,” Kirby responded.

“Our level of concern hasn’t really changed. It continues to be something that we’ve been worried about,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a later briefing.

An Israeli soldier checks a house that was hit by a Hezbollah rocket in Kiryat Shmona in northern Israel near the Lebanon border, on June 16, 2024, amid ongoing cross-border clashes between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters. (Photo by Menahem Kahana / AFP)

Hochstein brokered an Israel-Lebanon maritime boundary agreement in late 2022, after two years of talks, that opened the way for both countries to develop natural gas and other resources in the region. Hochstein has since been working on a demarcation of the land border between the two countries that could have a number of phases, starting with residents in southern Lebanon and northern Israel moving back home during an initial ceasefire.

Israel has expressed openness to a diplomatic solution to the conflict but has said it would launch an all-out war against Hezbollah to restore security to the north if an agreement isn’t reached.

After rocket attacks caused massive fires in the north of the country, Israel last week killed commander Taleb Abdullah, the most senior official to die in the fighting. Hezbollah responded with unprecedented rocket barrages on northern Israel.

Two missiles launched from Lebanon on Saturday struck the Israeli military’s sensitive Mount Meron air traffic control base. The IDF said there were no injuries and “no harm to the unit’s capabilities” in the attack.

As part of the diplomatic efforts to defuse the tensions, French President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that Paris, Washington and Jerusalem would form a contract group to work on doing so, though Gallant on Friday ruled out Israeli involvement, in comments that prompted a public spat with the Foreign Ministry.

Hezbollah has been attacking Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis since October 8, which it says it’s doing in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza, amid the war started by ally Hamas’s terror onslaught.

The skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 343 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 63 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire after missiles launched from Lebanon hit open areas near the northern city of Safed, on June 12, 2024. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

Settling the ‘northern Galilee’

Also on Monday, a group of fringe, far-right Israelis held an online conference advocating the idea of occupying areas of southern Lebanon as a solution to the northern border tensions.

The conference was broadcast live on YouTube, allowing participants to watch but not take part otherwise. A couple of hundred people watched the conference and around 800 participated in a WhatsApp group in preparation for the event, though some of them were curious journalists.

One of the speakers was Netanyahu’s estranged brother-in-law, Hagi Ben Artzi.

The first part of the presentation focused on the geopolitical situation in Lebanon, saying it is a “failed state” due to its large number of sectarian groups.

Another activist, Prof. Yoel Elitzur, a Bible and Hebrew linguistic researcher, explained that there is no other way to win the war with Hezbollah other than Jews settling the “northern part of the Galilee” — i.e., southern Lebanon. He referred to Bible inscriptions as proof of the necessity of such an act.

Hagi Ben Artzi speaks at the First Lebanon Conference, advocating the occupying and settling areas of southern Lebanon, June 17, 2024. (Screenshot: YouTube)

“We have to ask ourselves what is the proper way to assist God in fulfilling its intentions,” he said.

Ben Artzi, an educator and lecturer on Jewish thought, the Bible and the Talmud, suggested a change in the way Israelis refer to the area: “We must stop using the term south Lebanon or the security zone because from a geographical viewpoint, the Galilee [in northern Israel] extends to the Litani River. It is a single mountainous mass within which no dividing line can be separated. It is an artificial border, it has no natural geographic basis, and terminology is important.”

Ben Artzi also told the crowd how he was able to convince his brother-in-law, Netanyahu, to oppose the Israeli military’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon back in 1999, during an election campaign.

“Unfortunately, he lost the election to Ehud Barak at the time,” Ben Artzi recalled. A year later, Barak oversaw the withdrawal from southern Lebanon.

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