Israel's targeted killings unlikely to push Hezbollah behind Litani

Instead of instilling fear into the group, Hezbollah has only escalated the magnitude, intensity, and reach of its attacks on Israel

Israel's targeted killings unlikely to push Hezbollah behind Litani

The recent uptick in targeted eliminations of senior Hezbollah commanders by Israel, marked by the killing of another commander on 3 July, signifies a notable shift in the rules of engagement. Israeli military officials claim they have eliminated half of Hezbollah's commanders in southern Lebanon—a statement that Hezbollah sources dismiss as propaganda.

These conflicting accounts raise important questions about these developments and their impact: How many Hezbollah commanders has Israel effectively eliminated? What insights can we gain from the profiles of the targeted senior operatives? And what broader significance do these attacks hold?

Hezbollah rarely releases details about the ranks of its deceased members, but the group's reactions to targeted individuals often provide insights into the significance of the fighters killed. For example, Hezbollah launched 100 rockets into Israel in retaliation for the killing of its senior commanders in Tyre last week. Notably, the party’s retaliation was far more substantial, launching 200 rockets in response to the killing of senior commander Sami Taleb Abdullah, indicating that he held a higher rank.

By cross-referencing the group's responses with publicly available data on claims regarding its eliminated commanders, it is likely that around 29 senior Hezbollah commanders have been eliminated between 8 October 2023 and 16 June 2024.

Nasser and Aziz units

The Southern Front—encompassing three main units within Hezbollah's structure—witnessed the highest number of casualties among commanders, with 11 senior operatives killed, representing almost 38% of the total. This front comprises the Nasser and Aziz units tasked with defending the area from the Israeli border to the Litani River (referred to as the First Line of Defence). Additionally, the Badr unit oversees the region between the Litani River and Sidon, known as the Second Line of Defence.

Israel says it has eliminated half of Hezbollah's commanders in southern Lebanon—a statement the group dismisses as propaganda.

Since 8 October 2023, the Nasser unit has played a crucial role in the conflict with Israel, primarily launching rocket mortars, UAVs, and anti-tank missiles into northern Israel. This operational significance has made the Nasser unit a prime target for Israeli forces, resulting in the elimination of 9 senior operatives, including the unit commander Talib Sami Abdallah ("Abu Talib") on 11 June 2024.

Following closely is the Radwan unit, which lost ten commanders, approximately 34.5% of the total casualties, including the unit's acting leader, Wissam al-Tawil. The Radwan Unit is primarily tasked with infiltrating Israeli territory and capturing communities and territories. Due to the threat posed by the Radwan Unit, Israel has been actively targeting its operatives and disrupting its operations along the borders.

The remaining eight commanders (approximately 27.5% of the total casualties) were specialists in diverse fields, with four experts dedicated to research, development, weapon manufacturing, and combat support technologies. Furthermore, two high-ranking operatives from the air unit and two individuals from the air defence system were also among the casualties.

Israel strategically targets Hezbollah's senior commanders to disrupt the militant group's firing systems and significantly undermine its operational capabilities. This tactic aims not only to neutralise the immediate military threat posed by Hezbollah but also to reduce the scale of potential retaliatory actions.

Israel aims to boost morale by using the targeted killings of Hezbollah commanders to demonstrate progress to the Israeli public.

Beyond the operational impact, these targeted eliminations serve a psychological purpose. Tel Aviv seeks to instil fear among Hezbollah commanders. Additionally, Israel aims to boost morale by using these targeted killings to demonstrate progress to the Israeli public, particularly when facing challenges in achieving concrete military successes against Hamas.

Opposite effect

While the psychological effects of these attacks remain uncertain, they have not disrupted Hezbollah's operational and command functions. Quite the contrary, the group has escalated the magnitude, intensity, and reach of its attacks on Israel.

As a result, Israel's targeted killings are unlikely to push Hezbollah beyond the Litani River in Lebanon, delaying the return of tens of thousands of displaced Israelis. Furthermore, these eliminations are unlikely to have a strategic impact on the group's future, given that each commander has a pool of successors ready to step in.

These risky yet calculated moves indicate that neither Israel nor Hezbollah desires a full-blown conflict. However, a single miscalculation by either side could trigger what the UN has warned would be a "potentially apocalyptic" war, risking the involvement of Iran, the United States, and many others.

It is difficult to envision a resolution to the current impasse without a lasting ceasefire—both in Gaza and with Hezbollah—to prevent a prolonged war of attrition that threatens the stability of the entire region and possibly beyond.

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