Posts Tagged ‘ Shiite Resistance of Hizbollah ’

20 years after withdrawal, Israel, Hezbollah brace for war

May 20, 2020

KFAR CHOUBA, Lebanon (AP) — Twenty years after Hezbollah guerrillas pushed Israel’s last troops from southern Lebanon, both sides are gearing up for a possible war that neither seems to want. Israeli troops are striking Hezbollah targets in neighboring Syria and drilling for what could be an invasion of Lebanon. The militant Hezbollah group is beefing up its own forces and threatening to invade Israel if provoked. The bitter enemies routinely exchange warnings and threats.

“We are preparing seriously for the next war. We’re not taking any shortcuts because we understand we have to be extremely strong to defeat the enemy,” said Col. Israel Friedler, an Israeli commander who has been overseeing a weeks-long exercise simulating war with Hezbollah at a base in northern Israel.

Hezbollah emerged as a ragtag guerrilla group in the 1980s, funded by Iran to battle Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon. A protracted guerrilla war, characterized by roadside bombs and sniper attacks, eventually forced Israel to withdraw in May 2000. With the exception of an inconclusive, monthlong war in 2006, the volatile frontier has largely remained calm.

Since then, Hezbollah has evolved into the most powerful military and political entity in Lebanon. The party and its allies dominate Lebanon’s parliament and are the main power behind Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government.

“Domestically, Hezbollah has emerged to become the preponderant force in Lebanon,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut. But regionally, he said, “the position of Hezbollah is precarious” due to Israeli pressure, domestic turmoil and problems for its Iranian benefactors.

The group can ill afford another massive clash with Israel. The Lebanese economy is in shambles, around half the population is now estimated to live in poverty — including in Hezbollah strongholds — and the group’s finances are suffering because of U.S. sanctions imposed on it and Iran. The group also suffered heavy losses in the Syrian civil war, losing some 2,000 fighters while battling alongside the forces of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. Once seen as a liberation movement, Hezbollah is now seen by many in Lebanon and the region as an Iranian pawn.

Qassim Qassir, an expert on Hezbollah, says the group has no interest in going to war but has been preparing for battle for a long time. “The battle will not be a battle of missiles only,” he said, a reference that Hezbollah might try to invade parts of northern Israel.

In a region filled with adversaries, Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. During the 2006 war, the group launched some 4,000 rockets into Israel, most of them unguided projectiles with limited ranges. Today, Israeli officials say Hezbollah possesses some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel. They say it has sophisticated anti-tank missiles, night-vision equipment and cyber warfare capabilities.

Hezbollah operates along the border, in violation of the U.N. cease-fire that ended the 2006 war. It also has established a presence in southern Syria, near the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, providing an additional front in a future war. Most critically, Israel believes Hezbollah is trying to develop and build precision-guided missiles.

Sheikh Ali Daamoush, a top Hezbollah official, claimed the Israelis are afraid of Hezbollah’s missile program. “The Israelis should be worried and scared because the resistance now has the will, intention, capabilities and force to make Israel face a great defeat in any coming confrontation,” he said.

That confrontation may come sooner than anticipated. Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in neighboring Syria in recent years, most of them believed to have been aimed at stopping Iranian arms shipments or missile technology for Hezbollah.

Syria has accused Israel of carrying out at least seven airstrikes in the past two months alone, believed to have targeted Iranian and proxy interests. Israeli warplanes and reconnaissance drones have been violating Lebanese airspace on almost daily basis in recent weeks.

Israeli officials say that neither Iran’s troubles — including the coronavirus crisis, plunging oil prices and U.S. sanctions — nor Lebanon’s domestic problems have changed Hezbollah’s behavior. They point to a recent attempt by Hezbollah to fly a drone into Israeli airspace and an incident last month in which alleged Hezbollah operatives damaged a fence along the Israeli-Lebanese frontier.

The Lebanese border town of Kfar Chouba, overseen by three Israeli positions, was quiet Wednesday, three days after Israeli troops shot and wounded a Syrian shepherd who had crossed into Israeli-held territory. The area is a disputed enclave along the frontier between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, where tensions often play out.

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of Israeli troops have been participating in a massive exercise at the Elyakim military base. On a recent day, four Israeli tanks rumbled up to the edge of a ridge and fired powerful 120-millimeter shells streaking across the valley, scoring direct hits on targets several kilometers (miles) away. Ground troops maneuvered through a mock Lebanese village. Air force, navy and cyber units joined the drill.

Friedler, the Israeli commander, said if there is another war, Israel will have no choice but to cross the border to halt Hezbollah fire. He said battling an enemy entrenched in civilian areas is like “fighting with handcuffs on,” but insisted that his troops are ready.

“It won’t be easy. But without a doubt it will be much harder for them. They don’t have the means to stop us,” Friedler said. Hezbollah has also vowed to cross into Israel in any future war. In late 2018, Israel uncovered and later destroyed what it said was a network of cross-border tunnels.

Despite these tensions, residents along Israel’s northern border say that life has greatly improved since Israel withdrew from its self-declared “security zone” two decades ago. Nisim Shtern, a farmer in the northern Israeli border town of Kerem Ben Zimar, spent time in southern Lebanon as a soldier in the mid-1980s and remembers times when Katyusha rockets rained down on the area.

Shtern, who grows pomegranates and wine grapes in his orchards, says day-to-day life is good, but that some residents still get jittery. Even so, he said Israel made the right decision to withdraw. He said he trusts the army to take quick and decisive action whenever needed.

“We need to strike them hard and get out,” he said. “If there’s a problem, take care of it with maximum force.”

Federman reported from Elyakim Military Base, Israel.

Hezbollah leader: Kurdish vote will sow division in region

September 30, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group has warned that a controversial referendum on support for independence in Iraq’s Kurdistan will lead to dividing several countries in the region.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Saturday night that the referendum held on Monday does not threaten Iraq alone but also Turkey, Syria and Iran, which all have large Kurdish minorities. Iran, Turkey and Syria rejected this week’s symbolic referendum, in which Iraq’s Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence.

Nasrallah said the divisions would also reach other countries in the region including Saudi Arabia, a country that he harshly criticized in his speech. “The responsibility of the Kurds, Iraqi people and concerned counties … is to stand against the beginning of divisions,” Nasrallah said.

Hezbollah throws weight behind protests, deepening crisis

August 26, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — The powerful Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah threw its weight Tuesday behind mass protests calling for the government’s resignation, deepening a crisis that started over piles of uncollected garbage in the streets of the capital but has tapped into a much deeper malaise.

The explosion of anger targets the endemic corruption, hapless government and sectarian divisions of a brittle country once torn by civil war and now struggling with a wave of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

A grassroots youth movement calling itself “You Stink” mobilized thousands of people in two rallies over the weekend, and has called for another large protest on Saturday. The Hezbollah announcement of support for the protests is likely to fuel concerns the Iranian-backed group will try to hijack a rare, non-political movement for its own political gain.

Hezbollah ministers and their allies walked out of a Cabinet meeting Tuesday meant to discuss the worsening garbage crisis. Prime Minister Tammam Salam called the emergency session after the weekend clashes between security forces and demonstrators protesting corruption and poor public services.

The six ministers withdrew four hours into the meeting. Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, whose Free Patriotic Movement is aligned with Hezbollah, said he was pulling out because of the political “theater” surrounding the trash issue.

During the Cabinet session, ministers unanimously rejected the winning bidders to manage Beirut’s trash collection, citing high costs and a bidding procedure some said was questionable. The Cabinet tasked a ministerial committee with restarting the bidding, meaning no imminent solution to the crisis was likely.

Salam suggested dumping the garbage in the remote, impoverished region of Akkar, which has been neglected for decades, in exchange for $100 million in development projects as an incentive. That further riled the protesters. “Akkar is not a garbage dump!” read the slogan on one protester’s T-shirt.

The trash crisis has exacerbated the long-existing fault lines in Lebanon which in recent years have pitted the Iranian-backed Hezbollah against the country’s Western-aligned, pro-Saudi camp. Those divisions mirror the larger regional Shiite-Sunni divide, and have long paralyzed the government.

Although Salam’s government has elements from both camps, Hezbollah regards the prime minister as an ally of Saudi Arabia. The Shiite group’s ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun, has been assailing the prime minister over his handling of Cabinet and security appointments.

In a statement Tuesday, Hezbollah said the garbage crisis reflected the “endemic and accumulated corruption of the past two decades” and policies that only serve “personal and political interests at the expense of citizens.” It said holding peaceful protests was a legitimate right.

A columnist in the daily An-Nahar newspaper accused Hezbollah of exploiting the “You Stink” movement for its own agenda. Tarek Sarhan, a 17-year-old “You Stink” supporter, said there would always be groups that try to manipulate grass-roots movements for their own political gains in a country like Lebanon.

The protesters say they are fed up with leaders they accuse of caring only about lining their own pockets and a system they say ensures incessant bickering and paralysis. They contend the entire trash crisis is about which politicians get the bigger cut from waste management contracts.

Meanwhile, the political paralysis continues. The country’s politicians have been unable to decide on a president, a post reserved for a Christian in a sectarian power-sharing system, for over a year. According to that system, the prime minister must be a Sunni and the parliament speaker a Shiite. The current parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, has been in his post for 23 years.

Parliament has extended its term twice without elections and has been paralyzed because some lawmakers insist a president be elected first. Government has not made any substantial decisions as rival parties bicker over the decision-making process in Cabinet in the absence of a president to preside over the sessions.

Anger about the heaps of trash accumulating in Beirut’s streets boiled over this week, with thousands protesting the government’s failure to deliver basic services. The protests turned violent over the weekend, prompting the government to erect a concrete wall outside its main building to prevent protesters from reaching it.

Within hours, the wall was filled with anti-government graffiti. “State of Shabiha,” one young man scrawled, an Arabic term for thugs. Another drawing showed a man’s body wrapped in a black cloth below a caption that read: “The shroud of the state.”

On Tuesday, authorities began removing the wall, just 24 hours after it was installed. “They won’t fool us by removing the wall,” said Sarhan, the You Stink supporter. “Remove it or not, we don’t care. We want… an end to sectarianism. We want to build a state,” he said.

“This is a corrupt government, an immoral government that is starving us and conspiring against the people,” said Hassan Qatayesh, who suffered an injured jaw when he was struck by rocks during Saturday’s protest.

“They raised the wall to protect themselves from the people, thinking that this wall will prevent our voices from reaching them. But our voices are louder than walls, tear gas and rubber bullets.”

Hezbollah leader slams Saudi intervention in Yemen

March 27, 2015

BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah group unleashed a tirade against Saudi Arabia on Friday over its intervention in Yemen, calling it “surprising and painful,” and suggesting Riyadh would suffer a “humiliating defeat” if it didn’t resolve the conflict through negotiations.

Hassan Nasrallah rejected Riyadh’s claim that it had assembled a coalition to conduct airstrikes against Shiite Houthi rebels in order to save Yemen, an operation named “Decisive Storm.” He said that since Israel was created in 1948 “there has been no decisive storm or even a decisive breeze” to help the Palestinians.

Hezbollah, like Yemen’s Houthi rebels, is supported by Iran, which Saudi Arabia views as its main regional rival. Iran has openly armed and assisted Hezbollah since its creation, but both Iran and the Houthis deny it has sent arms to the Yemeni rebels.

“The real reason (for the war) is that Saudi Arabia lost its control and dominance in Yemen and the aim of war is to restore control and hegemony over Yemen. Period,” Nasrallah said. He condemned what he called a “Saudi-American aggression on Yemen, its people, army, installations, present and future.” The Hezbollah leader called for a political solution in Yemen, warning Saudi Arabia that it will not win the war.

“Throughout history, invaders were defeated and the invaders were humiliated,” Nasrallah said. “The rulers in Saudi Arabia still have an opportunity in order not to face a humiliating defeat.” Nasrallah said the countries taking part in the military campaign should review their policies. “Should the region go to war because of Saudi money?” he asked.

In some of his harshest comments to date, Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of sending suicide attackers to Iraq and of creating the Islamic State group. Addressing Saudi Arabia, he said Iran had expanded its influence in the region because “you are lazy, losers, and you don’t take responsibility.”

Hezbollah sends message to Israel ‘conflict is over’

2015-01-29

By John Davison and Laurent Lozano

Jerusalem

Israel on Thursday buried two soldiers killed in a Hezbollah missile strike that triggered Israeli fire on southern Lebanon, raising tensions between the bitter enemies to their highest in years.

But the Israeli-Lebanese border was calm, as officials in the Jewish state played down the threat of a new war with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Shiite militant group.

In a rare such declaration, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Hezbollah had passed on a message through the United Nations peacekeeping mission in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, saying it did not want a further escalation.

“We have received a message… that, from their point of view, the incident is over,” he told public radio.

Analysts say neither side seems keen for a repeat of the devastating Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 and that any response is likely to be limited.

The two soldiers were killed Wednesday when Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at a convoy in an Israeli-occupied area on the border with Lebanon.

Israeli forces responded to the attack — which came in retaliation for an Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members — with artillery, tank and air fire on several villages in southern Lebanon.

There were no reports of Lebanese casualties, but a 36-year-old Spanish peacekeeper with UNIFIL was killed in the exchange of fire.

– Mourners gather in Jerusalem –

In Israel, schools reopened on Thursday, as did Mount Hermon ski resort in the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights.

In the Lebanese border village of Majidiya, residents collected spent artillery shells from Wednesday’s strikes.

At the local UN base a blackened concrete tower could be seen with part of its wall blown out, and a Spanish flag flew at half-mast.

Hundreds of mourners gathered at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem for the burial of 25-year-old Captain Yochai Kalangel.

Sobbing relatives greeted mourners, many wearing the purple beret of Kalangel’s Givati (Highland) Brigade.

There was a similar turnout for the other soldier killed, 20-year-old Staff Sergeant Dor Chaim Nini, buried in the town of Shtulim in south-central Israel.

Questions have been raised in Israel about why they were travelling in unarmored vehicles in the volatile area.

Israel said it considered Wednesday’s attack the “most severe” since 2006, when war with Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blamed the attack on Iran.

“This is the same Iran that is now trying to achieve an agreement, via the major powers, that would leave it with the ability to develop nuclear weapons,” he said.

Israel has threatened military action to stop arch-foe Iran obtaining atomic weapons. Tehran insists its program is only for civilian purposes.

Netanyahu held talks with top security brass late Wednesday, warning afterwards: “Those behind today’s attack will pay the full price.”

– Chances of war ‘very slim’ –

Still, analysts said Israel, fresh from a summer war with Hamas in Gaza and heading for a general election in March, was not eager for a full-scale conflict.

“Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, compared with the 10,000 of Hamas,” the Palestinian Islamist group which controls Gaza, said analyst Boaz Ganor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.

“The human cost of such a war would be enormous, and no Israeli leader will be pro-active in this direction,” he said.

As for Hezbollah, it is deeply involved in Syria’s civil war, fighting with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces against mostly Sunni rebels.

“Hezbollah is very busy in Syria; the last thing that it needs is a second front,” Yaakov Amidror, a former major general, said.

On the Lebanese side, Labor Minister Sejaan Azzi said the government had “received assurances from major countries that Israel won’t escalate the military situation, and that yesterday’s response was enough… for the time being.”

Tension in the area had been building since an Israeli air strike on the Syrian-controlled sector of the Golan killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — who is to deliver an address on Friday — had earlier threatened retaliation for Israel’s repeated strikes inside Syria.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69940.

Netanyahu warns Hezbollah will pay ‘full price’

2015-01-29

By Ali Dia – MAJIDIYA

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Lebanon’s Hezbollah it will pay the “full price” after missiles killed two Israeli soldiers Wednesday in an attack that raised fears of another all-out war.

A Spanish UN peacekeeper was killed as Israel and Hezbollah exchanged artillery fire — the most serious clashes between the bitter enemies in years — following the attack by the Shiite militant group.

“Those behind today’s attack will pay the full price,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying at a meeting with Israeli’s top security brass Wednesday evening.

The two soldiers were killed when Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile at a military convoy in an Israeli-occupied border area, the army said.

Seven other soldiers were wounded, but none were reported to have suffered life-threatening injuries.

The UN Security Council called an emergency meeting to discuss ways to defuse tensions between the two sides, who fought a month-long war in 2006.

Israel responded to the Hezbollah shelling with “combined aerial and ground strikes” on southern Lebanon.

The United States stood by Israel after the exchange of fire and condemned Hezbollah’s shelling of an Israeli military convoy, which apparently came in retaliation for a recent Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members.

“We support Israel’s legitimate right to self-defense and continue to urge all parties to respect the blue line between Israel and Lebanon,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini appealed for an “immediate cessation of hostilities”.

Lebanese security sources said that Israeli forces had hit several villages along the border.

Clouds of smoke could be seen rising from Majidiya village, one of the hardest hit. There was no immediate information on casualties.

A 36-year-old Spanish corporal from the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon was killed in the exchange of fire, officials and Spain said.

“It is clear that this was because of the escalation of the violence and it came from the Israeli side,” Spanish Ambassador to the UN Roman Oyarzun told reporters.

– ‘Very harsh’ response –

Hezbollah said it had targeted an Israeli military convoy “transporting several Zionist soldiers and officers”.

“There were several casualties in the enemy’s ranks,” Hezbollah said.

Israel said mortar fire was also aimed across the border at several military facilities. There were no casualties.

Hardline Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel should respond to the attack “in a very harsh and disproportionate manner, as China or the US would respond to similar incidents”.

Army spokesman Brigadier General Moti Almoz warned Israel was considering further action.

“This is not necessarily the last response,” he wrote on Twitter.

Hezbollah’s attack was hailed by the Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

“We affirm Hezbollah’s right to respond to the Israeli occupation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, while Jihad’s Quds Brigade praised the attack as “heroic”.

Israeli security sources said at least one house had been hit in the divided village of Ghajar, which straddles the border between Israel and Lebanon.

“Three houses were hit by rockets,” said Hussein, 31, relaying what he had heard by telephone from relatives in the village of 2,000 inhabitants.

He said a number of villagers had been wounded but did not know how badly.

Other frantic family members argued with police to be allowed in to collect their children, who had been locked inside the village school for their own safety.

– Building tensions –

Tension in the area had been building, especially after an Israeli air strike on the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.

The day before the raid, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to retaliate against Israel for its repeated strikes on targets in Syria and boasted the Shiite militant movement was stronger than ever.

Israeli warplanes also struck Syrian army targets in the Golan Heights early on Wednesday, hours after rockets hit the Israeli-held sector.

During a Wednesday evening meeting with senior military and intelligence officials, Netanyahu sent a warning to the government of Lebanon and to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“The government of Lebanon and the Assad regime share responsibility for the consequences of attacks originating in their territory against the state of Israel,” he said.

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said Wednesday’s attack was the “most severe” Israel had faced since 2006, when its war with Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Israel occupied parts of Lebanon for 22 years until 2000 and the two countries are still technically at war.

Wednesday’s missile attack was on Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area, a mountainous, narrow sliver of land occupied by Israel since 1967.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=69928.

Hezbollah suffers heavy losses in clashes with jihadists

2014-10-06

BAALBEK – Eight fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement were killed in clashes with jihadists in an area on the border with Syria, a Hezbollah source said on Monday.

The source revised an earlier toll of five dead for Sunday’s attack by jihadists on a Hezbollah post and clashes that followed.

The early morning attack targeted the post in mountains around the town of Nabi Sbat, east of Baalbek on the border with Syria.

The source said “dozens” of jihadists were killed in the assault, which Lebanon’s National News Agency said was launched from Assal al-Ward in Syria’s Qalamun province.

Al-Qaeda’s Syria affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, claimed involvement in the attack on one of its official Twitter accounts on Monday.

The group said its fighters “launched an attack from Assal” on the Hezbollah post.

“More than 11 of them were killed and their weapons seized,” it added, posting photos it said were of dead Hezbollah fighters.

Lebanon’s border with Syria is not officially defined and much of it is porous and unpatrolled, with local residents, smugglers and others moving freely across it.

Hezbollah maintains several military posts along inaccessible parts of the border, and it rarely gives official details on clashes with jihadists or other fighters.

The clashes come two months after jihadists from the Islamic State group and Al-Nusra attacked Lebanese security forces in Arsal, which also lies on the Syrian border in eastern Lebanon.

The jihadists withdrew into the mountains around Arsal after a ceasefire, but took with them around 30 soldiers and policemen as hostages.

Three of them have since been executed, contributing to rising anxiety in Lebanon over the encroachment of jihadists and spillover from the more than three-year-old war in Syria.

Hezbollah has dispatched fighters to bolster President Bashar al-Assad’s troops against an uprising that many of Lebanon’s Sunnis support.

The conflict has exacerbated existing tensions in Lebanon, and made Hezbollah and its strongholds of support a target for extremists who have detonated bombs in several areas.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=68354.

Hezbollah commander killed in Iraq

July 31, 2014

BEIRUT (AP) — Officials say a commander with the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah was killed in Iraq.

The Lebanese officials, close to the Shiite Hezbollah, say Ibrahim Mohammed al-Haj was killed during the past week while on a “jihadi mission” without providing further details. It is the first known Hezbollah death in Iraq since Sunni extremists captured large parts of the country north and west of Baghdad in June.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter. Iraqi officials have said that a handful of advisers from Hezbollah are offering front-line guidance to Iraqi Shiite militias fighting jihadi militants north of Baghdad.

Hezbollah fighters openly joined Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces last year in a decision that has fueled sectarian tensions in Lebanon.

Possible culprits in Hezbollah commander’s killing

December 04, 2013

Senior Hezbollah commander Hassan al-Laqis was assassinated early Wednesday in southern Beirut — a sharp blow to the Iranian-backed Shiite group. Hezbollah has no shortage of rivals eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership:

— ISRAEL: Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel for al-Laqis’ assassination, saying it had tried to kill him several times already. Israeli officials denied the accusations. Still, the Jewish state could view the fallout from Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria — and the long list of enemies it has created — as cover to move against a senior figure.

Enmity runs deep between Israel and Hezbollah. The Lebanese group waged an insurgency against the nearly 20-year Israeli military occupation of southern Lebanon before Israel withdrew in 2000. The Israelis have killed — or have been suspected of killing — high-ranking Hezbollah figures for decades. In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife, his son and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was killed in south Lebanon. But one of the biggest blows came in 2008 when Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah commander, was killed by a bombing in Damascus.

— SAUDI ARABIA: Al-Laqis’ killing came shortly after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, speaking to a TV station, accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the Nov. 19 suicide bombings at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut. He indirectly blamed an alliance between Iran rivals Israel and Saudi Arabia for trying to strike at Hezbollah, which is Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon. The allegations spotlighted the Syrian civil war’s sectarian overtones and regional impact. Riyadh backs the predominantly Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, while regional Shiite power Iran and Hezbollah support Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose regime is stacked with members of his heterodox sect of Shiite Islam. Saudi Arabia fears what it sees as Iran trying to spread its influence across the Arab world. Under this thinking, a Saudi strike against Hezbollah would be a blow to Iran and its regional ambitions. The kingdom does not however have a known history of sponsoring assassinations.

— AL-QAIDA-LINKED GROUPS: Sunni extremists linked to al-Qaida are staunch opponents of Hezbollah. One such Lebanese group, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, claimed responsibility for the Iranian Embassy attack and said more would follow unless Hezbollah withdrew its fighters from Syria. Extremists and al-Qaida-affiliated factions increasingly dominate the messy mosaic of Syrian rebels. Al-Qaida fighters, whose extreme interpretation of Islam considers Shiites to be apostates whose blood may be shed, have attacked Shiites elsewhere, particularly Iraq, in the past decade. Al-Qaida-linked groups in Syria have proven to be among the most effective in fighting Assad, and they have claimed responsibility for most of the suicide bombings in the war.

— SYRIAN REBELS: Syrian rebels have been threatening Hezbollah since the group sent fighters to Syria. Two previously unknown Sunni groups claimed responsibility for al-Laqis’ assassination, although the claims could not be verified. Since Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria began, its strongholds have been targeted by rockets and car bombings in apparent retaliation.

Senior Hezbollah commander killed in Beirut

December 04, 2013

BAALBEK, Lebanon (AP) — The attackers waited in an olive grove around midnight. As the Hezbollah commander pulled into the garage of his nearby apartment building, they went in after him. Five bullets were pumped into his head and neck from a silencer-equipped pistol — an assassination that reverberated across the Middle East.

The killing early Wednesday of Hassan al-Laqis, described as a member of the inner circle of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, was the latest in a series of recent attacks against the Iranian-backed group.

Hezbollah blamed Israel, which denied involvement. However, the Shiite militant group’s open support of Syrian President Bashar Assad has enraged Sunnis and left it with no shortage of enemies eager to strike at its strongholds and leadership. Dozens of people have been killed in deadly car bombings claimed by radical Sunni groups.

The group’s participation in the civil war in Syria is highly divisive and unpopular in Lebanon, where many feel it has deviated from its raison d’etre of fighting Israel and exposed the Shiite community to retaliation.

Most recently, two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, killing 23. An al-Qaida-affiliated group claimed responsibility, saying it was payback for Hezbollah’s support of Assad.

Al-Laqis’ killing came shortly after Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the embassy bombings in a sharp escalation in rhetoric against the Sunni regional powerhouse. In a three-hour interview with a local TV station, he indirectly suggested an alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia was trying to destabilize his group.

The Saudi monarchy is engaged in a proxy war with Iran over influence in the region, and in that, Riyadh has increasingly found common ground with the Jewish state. “The assassination is another notch in tensions between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia,” said Kamel Wazne, founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut.

“There will be repercussions. It’s going to be more like an open battle,” he said. Two previously unknown Sunni groups claimed responsibility on Twitter for al-Laqis’ assassination, but the claims could not be verified.

Al-Laqis, 53, was killed as he returned home from work, Hezbollah said. “The brother martyr Hassan al-Laqis spent his youth and dedicated all his life in this honorable resistance since its inception up until the last moments of his life,” a statement from the group said.

An official close to the highly secretive group said al-Laqis held some of Hezbollah’s most sensitive portfolios and was very close to Nasrallah and his inner circle, often acting as a link with officials in Tehran.

“He was one of the brains behind much of the group’s operations,” the official said. Hezbollah distributed a photo of al-Laqis and said Israel had tried to kill him several times. The image showed a man wearing beige-and-khaki military clothes, with neatly cut black hair and a graying close-cropped beard.

There were conflicting reports on whether he was involved in the Syria war, where the group’s fighters have helped Assad’s troops gain the upper hand in key areas near the border with Lebanon. Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said the U.S. has seen reports of the killing and was looking to all parties “to cooperate with a full investigation.”

“We’ve been very concerned by recurring instances of sectarian and political violence in Lebanon, and we have talked about the negative impact that Syria has had in Lebanon and Iraq,” she said. Al-Laqis was shot with a pistol equipped with a silencer at close range after he parked in his apartment building in the Hadath neighborhood southwest of Beirut, according to a Lebanese security official and the official close to Hezbollah. Several assailants appear to have been involved, they said.

Muddy footprints led from the olive grove to the parking garage. Yellow police tape blocked off the area, and Hezbollah investigators were at the scene. He was struck by five bullets in the head and neck, the Lebanese official said. The gunmen fled, and al-Laqis was taken to a nearby hospital but died of his wounds, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

“I was trying to sleep, and I heard … a bullet being fired and a dog barking,” said Abdullah, a resident who asked to be identified only by his first name for security reasons. “I did not bother myself, but later I heard people screaming. … Then our neighbors told us that one of the neighbors was assassinated,” Abdullah said.

Another resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of his safety, said none of the neighbors were aware that al-Laqis was a security man and that he went about his business like everyone else.

Al-Laqis did not have bodyguards with him, suggesting he did not want to draw attention to himself. The assassination marked a rare breach of the Shiite militant group’s security — the fourth successful penetration of a Hezbollah enclave in recent months.

It also underscored how the militia has found itself engaged on multiple fronts: Shoring up Assad’s rule in Syria while also keeping up the fight against Israel. Some of Hezbollah’s most loyal supporters in the Shiite community have been reluctant to embrace its fight in Syria.

That involvement has raised tensions in Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities as each side lines up in support of their brethren in the Syrian civil war. That has fueled predictions that Lebanon, still recovering from its 15-year civil war that ended in 1990, is on the brink of descending into full-blown sectarian violence.

In Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, there have been bloody street battles between rival sides nearly every day, with at least 12 people killed last week. Al-Laqis was buried later Wednesday in his hometown of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon. A few thousand people took part in pouring rain, and women wept as Hezbollah pallbearers carried the coffin, wrapped in the group’s yellow flag, through the streets. Hezbollah fighters fired in the air in mourning.

“The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame,” the Hezbollah statement said. “This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this heinous crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance.”

Israeli officials categorically denied involvement. Still, Israel could view the fallout from Hezbollah’s armed intervention in Syria — and the long list of enemies it has created — as cover to move against one of the group’s senior figures and settle old scores with Hezbollah and Iran.

Hezbollah has fought several wars against Israel. Al-Laqis’ son, Ali, died fighting Israel in the monthlong 2006 war. Israel’s Mossad intelligence service has been suspected of assassinating Hezbollah commanders for more than two decades.

In 1992, Israeli helicopter gunships ambushed the motorcade of Hezbollah leader Sheik Abbas Musawi, killing him, his wife and 5-year-old son, and four bodyguards. Eight years earlier, Hezbollah leader Sheik Ragheb Harb was shot and killed in south Lebanon.

One of the biggest blows for the group came in 2008 when top military commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed by a bomb that ripped through his car in Damascus. Hezbollah and its primary patron, Iran, blamed Israel’s Mossad for the killing.

Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Jerusalem and Diaa Hadid in Beirut contributed to this report.