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Israeli strike kills elite Hezbollah commander as fears of another regional war grow

Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on Sunday.
Ohad Zwigenberg
/
AP
Smoke rises following an Israeli bombardment in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, on Sunday.

BEIRUT — An Israeli airstrike killed an elite Hezbollah commander in southern Lebanon on Monday, the latest in an escalating exchange of strikes along the border that have raised fears of another Mideast war even as the fighting in Gaza exacts a mounting toll on civilians.

The strike on an SUV killed a commander in a secretive Hezbollah force that operates along the border, according to a Lebanese security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to regulations. Hezbollah identified the slain fighter as Wissam al-Tawil without providing details.

He is the most senior militant in the armed group to have been killed since Hamas' Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel triggered all-out war in Gaza and lower-intensity fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, which has escalated since an Israeli strike killed a senior Hamas leader in Beirut last week.

This picture released by Hezbollah Military Media  shows senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil who was killed in Kherbet Selem village in south Lebanon on Monday.
/ Hezbollah Military Media via AP
/
Hezbollah Military Media via AP
This picture released by Hezbollah Military Media shows senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil who was killed in Kherbet Selem village in south Lebanon on Monday.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is back in the region this week, appears to be trying to head off a wider conflict.

Israel says it has largely wrapped up major operations in northern Gaza and is now focusing on the central region and the southern city of Khan Younis. Israeli officials have said the fighting will continue for many more months as the army seeks to dismantle Hamas and return scores of hostages taken during the militant group's Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war.

The offensive has already killed over 23,000 Palestinians, devastated vast swaths of the Gaza Strip, displaced nearly 85% of its population of 2.3 million and left a quarter of its residents facing starvation.

'Sickening scenes' in Gaza's overwhelmed hospitals

Medics, patients and displaced people fled from the main hospital in central Gaza as the fighting drew closer, witnesses said Monday. Losing the facility would be another major blow to a health system shattered by three months of war.

Doctors Without Borders and other aid groups withdrew from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in Deir al-Balah in recent days, saying it was too dangerous. That spread panic among people sheltering there, causing many to join the hundreds of thousands who have fled to the south of the besieged territory.

Tens of thousands of people have sought shelter in Gaza's hospitals, which are also struggling to treat dozens of people wounded each day in Israeli strikes. Only 13 of Gaza's 36 hospitals are even partially functioning, according to the U.N. humanitarian office.

Omar al-Darawi, an employee at Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, said the facility has been struck multiple times in recent days. He said thousands of people left after the aid groups pulled out, and that patients have been concentrated on one floor so the remaining doctors can tend to them more easily.

"We have large numbers of wounded who can't move" he said. "They need special care, which is unavailable."

More dead and wounded arrive each day as Israeli forces advance in central Gaza following heavy airstrikes. Gaza's Health Ministry said Monday that 249 Palestinians have been killed and 510 others were wounded across the territory in the last 24 hours.

World Health Organization staff who visited Sunday saw "sickening scenes of people of all ages being treated on blood-streaked floors and in chaotic corridors," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the U.N. agency, said in a statement. "The bloodbath in Gaza must end."

Dire conditions in the isolated north

The situation is even more dire in northern Gaza, which Israeli forces cut off from the rest of the territory in late October.

Entire neighborhoods have been demolished, and hundreds of thousands of people have fled, while those who remain face severe shortages of food and water. The WHO said late Sunday it has not been able to deliver supplies to northern Gaza in 12 days.

Even there, Israel is still battling what it describes as pockets of militants.

An airstrike early Sunday flattened a four-story home filled with displaced people in the urban Jabaliya refugee camp, killing at least 70, including women and children, according to Mahmoud Bassal, a spokesman for Gaza's civil defense. There was no immediate confirmation from the Health Ministry, which has struggled to maintain its operations in the north.

Palestinians search for bodies and survivors in the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Sunday.
Fatima Shbair / AP
/
AP
Palestinians search for bodies and survivors in the rubble of a house destroyed in an Israeli airstrike, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Sunday.

Search efforts were still underway on Monday. The civil defense circulated a graphic video showing the aftermath of attack, with several bodies scattered among the rubble.

Jabaliya, which was built for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation and is now a dense, built-up neighborhood, has seen weeks of heavy fighting.

More than 23,00 Palestinians have been killed, and more than 58,000 wounded, since the war began, according to the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza. The death toll does not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Health officials say about two-thirds of those killed have been women and minors.

Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group operates in heavily populated residential areas, but the military rarely comments on individual strikes. The military says it has killed some 8,000 militants, without providing evidence, and that 176 of its own soldiers have been killed in the offensive.

Seeking to head off a wider war

Blinken, who met with the leaders of Jordan and Qatar on Sunday, once again spoke of the need for Israel to adjust its military operations to minimize harm to civilians and allow more aid into the territory.

But his main focus appeared to be preventing the war from spreading.

A Hezbollah rocket barrage hit a sensitive air traffic base in northern Israel on Saturday in one of the biggest attacks in three months of low-intensity fighting along the border. The militant group said was an "initial response" to the killing of Hamas' deputy political leader Saleh Arouri in Beirut last week.

Israel has mostly sought to limit the fighting in its north, but its leaders say their patience is wearing thin, and that if the tensions cannot be resolved through diplomacy, they are prepared to go to war. They have expressed particular concern about the Radwan Force, the elite Hezbollah unit in which al-Tawil was a commander, which operates along the border.

Hezbollah began firing rockets shortly after Hamas' Oct. 7 attack ignited the war. Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people in southern Israel that day, mostly civilians, and took some 250 people hostage, over 100 of whom were released during a cease-fire in November.

Hezbollah has said its attacks, which have driven tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes, aim to ease pressure on Gaza. But the group appears wary of risking an all-out war that would bring massive destruction to Lebanon.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press