By BASSEM MROUE
BEIRUT (AP) — The elite Hezbollah commander who was killed in an Israeli airstrike Monday in southern Lebanon fought for the group for decades and took part in some of its biggest battles.
Wissam al-Tawil, a 48-year-old commander in Hezbollah’s secretive Radwan Force deployed along the border with Israel, was killed when the strike hit his SUV in his hometown of Khirbet Silem. The strike was about 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border, beyond the villages and towns that have witnessed the two sides exchange fire over the past three months.
Israeli officials have been demanding for weeks that the Radwan Force withdraw from the border area to allow tens of thousands of Israelis displaced by the fighting to return to their homes. During a visit to Israel last month, U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan said a “negotiated outcome” would be the best way to reassure residents of northern Israel.
Al-Tawil, who joined Hezbollah in 1989, was the highest-ranking official in the group to be killed since the exchange of fire along the Lebanon-Israel border began following the deadly Oct. 7 attack into southern Israel by Hamas, a Hezbollah ally.
After the Israel-Hamas war started three months ago, al-Tawil commanded some “special operations” against Israeli posts along the border, according to a Hezbollah statement.
A Hezbollah official told The Associated Press that al-Tawil had a role in sparking the summer 2006 war with Israel and fought in Syria’s civil war, where he was in charge of coordinating between the Lebanese group and the Syrian army in the battles against the Islamic State group.
On July 12, 2006, al-Tawil was a member of a special Hezbollah unit that crossed into Israel, captured two Israeli soldiers and killed others, triggering a monthlong fight with Israel that killed 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 in Israel, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Years later, when Hezbollah joined the war in Syria in 2013, fighting alongside Syrian government forces, al-Tawil was a close aide to Hezbollah’s chief commander there, Mustafa Badreddine, who was killed in 2016, the official said.
Al-Tawil, whose two brothers were killed fighting with Hezbollah, participated in dozens of attacks against Israeli forces and their Lebanese allies during Israel’s 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon until it withdrew in 2000. Hezbollah said in its statement that the father of four suffered a serious neck injury during an attack on an Israeli military post in southern Lebanon in 1999.
During his long years with the group, al-Tawil was close to Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military chief from the group’s founding in 1982 until he was killed in a bombing in the Syrian capital in 2008.
Al-Tawil also had close links with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad in 2020.