The Lebanon-Israel border district was on high alert Monday, expecting a retaliatory attack by Lebanon’s militant Shiite Hezbollah a day after an Israeli strike killed six members of the Iran-backed party along with an Iranian general in the Syrian Golan Heights.
The raid was carried out by two drones, according to international security sources in Lebanon, not a helicopter as has been reported. It took place amid heightened bellicose rhetoric between Israeli and Hezbollah officials in recent days, and the event stoked lingering fears of another conflict breaking out between the two bitter foes.
Lebanese troops and United Nations peacekeepers intensified patrols along the Lebanon-Israel border. In Israel, the security cabinet convened a meeting to discuss a potential deterioration of security along its northern border with Lebanon and Syria.
The Israeli raid led to the deaths of the highest number of Hezbollah fighters by Israel since the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. But in planning a response, Hezbollah will have to carefully weigh the manner of its retaliation. It wants to inflict a punishing message against Israel to restore its deterrence, yet won't want to escalate the situation further, as that could lead to a war that neither side presently seeks.
“This crime will not go unpunished but the leadership of the resistance [Hezbollah] is wise and knows how to respond,” says a Shiite source close to senior Hezbollah officials.
There was no immediate official comment from Hezbollah, but the party’s Al-Manar television station warned that the attack was “a costly adventure that threatens the Middle East.”
Interpreting the attack
Sunday’s attack struck a convoy of vehicles at the Amal Farms, an area near the Syrian town of Quneitra on the Golan Heights, and close to the fence marking the eastern edge of the Israeli-occupied portion of the volcanic plateau seized by the Jewish state in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Security sources say the two drones crossed the United Nations line of separation shortly before midday, and returned to the Israeli side nine minutes later, after carrying out the attack.
Among the six Hezbollah victims was Jihad Mughniyah, son of Imad Mughniyah, the group's former military commander who himself was killed in a car bomb assassination in Damascus in February 2008. Jihad Mughniyah was reportedly Hezbollah’s commander in the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah has several thousand fighters in Syria battling rebel groups on behalf of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The casualties also included Mohammed Issa, a veteran Hezbollah commander, and, according to reports in Iran, Ali al-Addadi, a general in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Several other Iranians were reportedly killed in the attack.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif told Iran’s Press TV that the attack in the Golan was an “act of terror”.
“The policy of state terrorism is a known policy of the Zionist regime,” he said.
There has been no official confirmation of the raid from Israel, but plenty of speculation as to the timing and purpose of the attack.
“I don’t think this was an attack aimed at harming Hezbollah,” Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence, told Israel’s Army Radio. “I think this was a pre-emptive operation specifically targeting Hezbollah’s activities on the Golan Heights.”
Hezbollah, he added, “will have difficulty absorbing an incident like this [without retaliating].”
Israel has previously attacked targets in the Golan Heights during Syria’s civil war, often in response to overspill from fighting between Syrian troops and rebels. Last September, Israel shot down a Syrian military jet after it briefly strayed into the Israeli occupied side of the Golan. But Sunday’s strike was the first pre-emptive attack on the Golan and the first overt attack against such a high-value Hezbollah target since 2006.
Last week, Hezbollah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah warned that his party was stronger than ever and that Israel was mistaken if it thought the party’s intervention in Syria had weakened it.
“If the Israelis believe that the resistance is exhausted or that its determination and military power have been weakened, they will learn that they are delusional,” he told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen television in a lengthy interview.
Sheikh Nasrallah also warned that attacks against Hezbollah or its Syrian ally could lead to retaliation, “but whether we will do it or not, I will not say.”
An 'appropriate' response?
Israel has staged eight air attacks in the past two years against suspected consignments of advanced weapons, such as ballistic missiles and air defense systems, destined for Hezbollah. Seven of the attacks targeted locations in Syria and went unanswered by the Syrian authorities.
The exception was an air strike last February against a Hezbollah facility in east Lebanon used for the transfer of weapons from Syria. Over the three weeks that followed, four actual or attempted attacks were carried out against the Israeli army, three in the Golan Heights and one bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside along Lebanon’s south-east border with Syria. Hezbollah claimed only the Shebaa Farms bombing, although the other three attacks were almost certainly the work of the Lebanese group and part of the retaliation for Israeli air strike.
Sunday’s attack, coming just days after Nasrallah’s warnings about Hezbollah’s strength, leaves the group mulling an appropriate response. The fact that a senior Iranian officer was also killed will add pressure for Hezbollah to devise a suitable retaliation.
Hezbollah could respond in a way similar to the past, with anonymous attacks against Israeli troops in the Golan Heights or claimed operations in the Shebaa Farms. On the other hand, it could choose a less orthodox reprisal involving possibly its fleet of weaponized pilotless drones, or an attack on Israeli naval vessels with its anti-ship cruise missiles or perhaps an infiltration into northern Israel to carry out an act of sabotage.
Ibrahim al-Amine, the general manager of the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper, and a close confidante of Hezbollah’s leaders, wrote Monday that the Israeli decision to attack the Hezbollah convoy in the Golan was not a “sudden decision” but a meticulously detailed plan.
“The reaction to this [by Hezbollah] should be an act that is not based on emotions, but on considerations that go down to the finest details, an action that demands quiet and consideration, without any connection to the emotional aspect,” he wrote.
Editor's note: a previous version of this story misstated the type of vehicle carrying out Sunday's attack.