Hezbollah strikes back at Israel: Why escalation is not inevitable

Hezbollah fighters fired antitank missiles at a convoy, killing two Israeli soldiers. The much-anticipated reply to an Israeli strike 10 days before showed the challenge both sides face: retaliation without escalation.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Israeli soldiers secure the Israel-Lebanon Border, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. The Lebanese Hezbollah group is claiming responsibility for today’s attack on an Israeli military convoy. Hezbollah claims the attack destroyed a number of Israeli vehicles and caused casualties among 'enemy ranks.' Israel later fired at least 35 artillery shells into Lebanon.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah has launched its most severe attack on Israeli forces since 2006, when a cross-border incident set off a summer war. Wednesday's strike drew Israeli retaliation, but analysts suggested both sides were aiming for restraint.

Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon targeted an Israeli convoy in a heavily militarized border region northwest of the Golan Heights with six anti-tank missiles, killing two soldiers, wounding another seven, and destroying at least two vehicles.

The attack came as a much-anticipated response to an Israeli drone strike Jan. 18 on the Syrian Golan that killed six Hezbollah fighters, including two senior commanders, and an Iranian general.

Israeli responded by firing more than 100 mortar shells into Lebanon, including some rounds that appeared to be filled with phosphorous. A UN peacekeeper was killed, reportedly from the Israeli shelling.

While both Israel and Hezbollah threatened more reprisals if necessary, their actions appeared calibrated to deliver a forceful message without leading to a full-scale escalation of hostilities. Both sides have an interest in avoiding another war, which many say would be far more devastating than the 2006 conflict, in which at least 1,190 Lebanese and more than 160 Israelis died.

“Yes, we need to protect our interests over there, but not to take an unnecessary step,” said Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv (ret.), former head of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Operations Branch, in a conference call with reporters.

The attack occurred near the village of Ghajar at the foot of the Shebaa Farms, a 25-square-mile mountainside along Lebanon’s southeast border with the Golan Heights. Israel has occupied the region since capturing it from Syrian forces in 1967, but it is claimed by Lebanon.

Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack and dedicated it to the “martyrs of Quneitra,” a reference to the Israeli strike 10 days ago.

Netanyahu warns Hezbollah

Lebanon's Daily Star quoted an unnamed senior political source as saying Wednesday that the ball is now in Israel's court.

“If the Israelis launch a wide-scale response, Hezbollah will respond in kind.... At this stage we cannot completely rule out this spiraling out of this incident into a full-fledged war,” the source reportedly told the paper.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in the southern Israeli town of Sderot that has been a frequent target of missile fire from the Gaza Strip, issued a stern warning to Hezbollah before heading to Tel Aviv to for a security consultation.

“Anyone who tries to challenge us along the northern border should come and see what happened here, not far from Sderot, in the Gaza Strip,” he said, referring to last summer’s devastating war there.

Establishing deterrence in such a situation inherently involves a risk of escalation, but such action is imperative, says Yaakov Amidror, Mr. Netanyahu’s former national security adviser.

“In the crazy Middle East, if Israel will not be ready to take risks and make red lines on the sand, Israel might find itself in the position where it can't defend itself,” says Maj. Gen. Amidror, who served under Netanyahu from 2011-13.

Situation is 'really fragile'

Netanyahu, running for a fourth term in March elections, is keen to promote himself as the sole leader who can ensure Israel's security. But he has also shown caution in previous escalations, even when political allies pushed for more aggressive action.

“I believe that we have now a chance to calm down the situation,” says Shaul Shay, a former deputy head of the Israeli National Security Council who is now at the Institute of Policy & Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. According to Mr. Shay, Hezbollah’s retaliation was fairly well-calculated – a strike on an Israeli convoy after Israel’s Jan. 18 strike on a Hezbollah convoy. “But it's really, really fragile,” he says.

Within hours of the Hezbollah strike, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) said it would "be standing by Islamic resistance fighters in all fronts against Zionist criminals,” according to Tasnim News. A text message circulating in Tehran read, “Congratulations on Hezbollah's hard revenge on Israel.”

The IRGC founded Hezbollah in 1982, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Ever since, the Lebanese Shiite militia has been a useful proxy for Iran on the frontline against Israel, a key element in the Iran-led “axis of resistance” against US and Israeli influence in the region that includes Syria and Palestinian militant groups.

Wednesday’s Hezbollah attack followed more than a week of escalating rhetoric from Iran, which communicated to the US via diplomatic channels that Israel had crossed a red line by killing its general. It also came the day after Katyusha rockets were fired from the Syrian Golan on the IDF, which responded overnight.

In Lebanon, praise and criticism

There was a second mortar attack Wednesday, originating from an area of the Syrian Golan controlled by the Syrian Army and allied Hezbollah fighters. That also hit IDF positions in the Shebaa Farms area but caused no casualties.

Within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s deadly attack drew both praise and criticism.

The crackle of celebratory gunfire echoed across the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold. “We made the Israelis bleed. We destroyed their convoy with our missiles. Today my heart has grown much bigger. I am very proud to be a member of Hezbollah,” one fighter said.

But the streets were less crowded than usual, with people either staying at home or even leaving the area, which was heavily bombed by Israeli jets in 2006. 

Samir Geagea, the head of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party opposed to Hezbollah, warned that the attack could have “dangerous repercussions” on Lebanon.

“Hezbollah does not have the right to involve the Lebanese Army and government in a battle with Israel,” he said in a news conference.

Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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