Hundreds mourn slain Hezbollah commander as wider war with Israel looms
Around a thousand mourners gathered in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Salem on Tuesday to commemorate the assassination of senior Hezbollah commander Wissam Tawil, killed by Israel a day earlier, on 8 January.
Tawil was a commander in the elite Hezbollah Unit, the Radwan Forces, which is allegedly trained to conduct cross-border raids into northern Israel.
Tawil's car was struck outside the town of Khirbet Salem on the morning of 8 January, making him the senior-most member of Hezbollah killed since cross-border clashes began between Hezbollah and Israel on 8 October in the wake of Hamas' surprise attack on Israeli military bases and settlements in the "Gaza envelope".
Mourners were pressed close together as the casket holding Tawil's body was paraded through the town of Khirbet Salem.
Sheikh Nabil Qawook, a member of Hezbollah's Central Council, praised Tawil's record of service, particularly in neighbouring Syria.
"We are the party of martyrs, and martyrdom makes Hezbollah stronger," Qawook said.
Since fighting started three months ago, a steady stream of Hezbollah fighters have been killed, with funerals held in their hometowns daily.
Around 160 Hezbollah fighters have been killed since 8 October, while the Israeli government has announced at least four soldiers killed, though analysts have said the actual number of Israeli casualties is likely greater.
Tawil's funeral, however, was unlike others before it.
"This martyr has a history in Hezbollah, and he was a great leader. Of course, I would come. It's a duty. He is a symbol to us, and we are proud of him," Ali, a doctor from Nabatiyeh, told The New Arab at the funeral, declining to give his family name.
The killing of Tawil is another escalatory measure in fighting that has the potential to spill over into a full-scale war. Just days earlier, on 2 January, Israel assassinated top Hamas leader Salah al-Arouri in the southern suburbs of Beirut – hitting Lebanon's capital city for the first time since 2006.
Hezbollah responded by launching a salvo of missiles at Israel's Meron base in northern Israel, which the group claimed crippled Israel's ability to conduct aerial surveillance in southern Lebanon.
The group's leadership, as well as its ally Iran, have signalled that they do not want a full-blown war with Israel.
However, hostile rhetoric from both Israel and Hezbollah has been steadily escalating over the previous weeks, with the Israeli military claiming they are ready to fight Hezbollah if needed.
Head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc, Mohammed Raad, speaking at the funeral of another Hezbollah fighter on 10 January, said that Hezbollah is "not afraid of [Israeli] threats."
"If you want a wide war in which you attack our country, we will go to the end, and we are not afraid of your threat, bombing or aggression," Raad said.
Israel struck another car in Khirbet Salem shortly before the beginning of Tawil's funeral, killing three Hezbollah fighters. Mourners heading to the funeral had to pass by the burned-out husk of the car, broken glass and civil defence littering the scene.
"Even if the atmosphere is uncomfortable. Israel may bomb the funeral; we don't know. But look how many people came. They are not afraid of Israel, nor are they afraid of a war," Ali said.