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Israel’s Claim of Killing ‘Half’ of Hezbollah Commanders in Lebanon Draws Skepticism

Israel’s defense minister said the Israeli army had eliminated half of Hezbollah’s commanders in southern Lebanon. But analysts doubt that Israel’s growing use of targeted killings will weaken the militant group.

Hezbollah, based in Lebanon and Iran’s most powerful regional proxy, has had intense cross-border clashes with Israeli forces since attacks by Hamas in Israel on October 7. With few signs of easing the conflict and diplomatic talks. Without reaching a ceasefire, Israel has in recent months begun killing Hezbollah fighters in targeted strikes, reflecting an apparent shift in military strategy.

“Half of Hezbollah commanders in southern Lebanon have been eliminated,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during a Wednesday visit to Israeli troops along the northern border with Lebanon. “The other half is hiding,” he added, without providing a precise figure or proof of his claims.

A Hezbollah official and a senior Lebanese intelligence official, who both spoke anonymously to discuss the sensitive subject, on Thursday denied the figures put forward by Mr. Gallant.

Some experts have expressed skepticism that Israel’s targeted killings will achieve its goal of pushing Hezbollah north of Lebanon’s Litani River, thereby preventing cross-border attacks and allowing the return of tens of thousands of Israeli civilians displaced by the fights.

“It’s psychological warfare,” said Kassem Kassir, a Lebanese political analyst and Hezbollah expert close to the group. He added that Mr. Gallant’s statement was a way “to convince the Israeli public that the army is achieving its goals.”

In reality, Mr. Kassir said, out of 100,000 Hezbollah fighters, no more than 20 of the roughly 270 members the group admitted to being killed were commanders.

Mr. Gallant’s comments, analysts say, reflect a growing unanimity among Israeli officials that Hezbollah poses the clearest threat on its borders. On Sunday, Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s emergency war cabinet, said the border between Israel and Lebanon posed its “greatest and most urgent challenge.”

Publicly, the Israeli army has named nine Hezbollah fighters it eliminated and described as “commanders” on the messaging app Telegram since October 7. Some have been described as senior figures in Hezbollah’s elite Radwan unit, and others are believed to have been involved. in the group’s drone operations. The claims could not be independently verified.

“They need this veneer of success and that’s why they make these assassinations high-profile,” said Amal Saad, a professor of politics and international relations at Cardiff University in Wales, who researches Hezbollah. “This is compensation for the lack of any military success,” she added.

Hezbollah rarely releases details about the ranks of its slain fighters, often denying the Israeli military’s claims about their role. Analysts say, however, that the group’s responses to targeted strikes are often indicative of the significance of the number of fighters killed.

Rym Momtaz, a Paris-based researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who specializes in the Middle East, said: “Israel has killed some of its commanders in the south. This isn’t something they’ve denied, and of course it’s a problem, but Gallant is exaggerating here. »

Another analyst noted that estimates of wartime battlefield casualties could be suspect. “All parties probably have an interest in showing that they are doing well and minimizing their losses,” said Matthew Levitt, director of the counterterrorism program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research organization.

Hezbollah lost a significant number of fighters and commanders during the war with Israel, Levitt said. But “the reality is that Hezbollah has a solid base,” he said.

Elias Hanna, a military analyst and former brigadier general in the Lebanese army, said that no matter how many Hezbollah commanders are killed, Israel’s shift toward targeted killings “would not affect” Hezbollah’s “modus operandi.” . He added: “It’s a war of attrition and position.”

After airstrikes killed what Israel described as two Hezbollah commanders, the militant group claimed responsibility for a drone and missile attack in northern Israel last week that killed a soldier and injured 16 other soldiers and two civilians. It was one of Hezbollah’s most devastating attacks in Israel in recent months.

John Reiss And Anushka Patil reports contributed.

News Source : www.nytimes.com
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