Ronen Zvulun/Reuters
Israeli soldiers stand on a field overlooking Syria in the Golan Heights March 19, 2014. Israel launched air strikes on Wednesday against Syrian military sites in response to a roadside bombing that wounded four of its soldiers, but both sides signalled they were not seeking further escalation.

Behind Israeli strikes on Syria, a simmering battle with Hezbollah

Israel bombed Syrian military targets in retaliation for IED attacks on Israeli troops, allegedly by Hezbollah. By targeting Syria, Israel sent a message that it holds Damascus responsible.

A spate of attacks against Israeli military targets in the Golan Heights has raised fears that Hezbollah is opening a new conflict with Israel after a hiatus of nearly eight years.

Israel's retaliatory air strikes on Syrian military targets Tuesday night indicates that it holds the Syrian regime responsible for the suspected actions of Hezbollah, its military ally.

Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to help President Bashar al-Assad and are together presently clawing back a strategic belt of territory north of Damascus. Given that it is both fighting in Syria and attempting to contain a backlash in Lebanon, where suicide bombers have targeted Shiite areas in recent months, Hezbollah has no interest in a serious flare-up with Israel. And Israel has been clear that it does not want an open conflict with the Shiite militant group. 

Therefore, the Golan Heights – seized from Syria in 1967 and annexed by Israel in 1981 – is a conveniently ambiguous area from which Hezbollah can launch anonymous attacks, leaving Israel uncertain of the perpetrator. 

Suspecting Hezbollah

The latest of the unclaimed attacks occurred Tuesday, when a roadside bomb packed with anti-personnel steel balls exploded beside several Israeli soldiers just south of Majdal Shams at the security fence marking Israel’s eastern perimeter in the Golan. Four soldiers were wounded in the blast, one of them seriously.

In response, Israeli jets attacked several Syrian military bases around Quneitra, eight miles south, overnight. The Israeli military said the targeted sites included a Syrian military headquarters, artillery batteries and a training base “which enabled and aided in the carrying out of [Tuesday’s] terror attacks.”

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister, said Israel held the Assad regime responsible for the attack and warned that “if it continues to collaborate with terrorists striving to hurt Israel then we will keep on exacting a heavy price from it and make it regret its actions."

The Syrian military said that one soldier was killed and seven wounded in the Israeli air strikes and condemned the attack. "Repeating such hostile acts (airstrikes) would endanger the security and stability of the region and make it open to all possibilities," a Syrian military statement said.

The Israeli security fence winds through steep hills south of Majdal Shams, allowing militants to approach without being detected. Israel suspects Hezbollah because it has years of experience using improvised explosive devices against Israeli troops in south Lebanon. And, while anti-Assad rebel forces are present in much of the Golan Heights, this area is controlled by the Syrian Army, a battlefield ally of Hezbollah.

“I can’t tell you for sure, but let’s say I’m going to be really surprised if it’s going to be somebody else other than Hezbollah,” said Brig. Gen. Amnon Sofrin, a former director of Israel’s Mossad Intelligence Directorate, in comments made to a group of reporters in Jerusalem.

Mutual deterrence falters

If Hezbollah were responsible for yesterday's bombing and other recent attacks against the Israeli military, it marks a departure from the dormancy of the past eight years. 

For 2000 to 2006, after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon, Hezbollah staged periodic attacks against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside along the border. 

In July 2006, Lebanese militants fought the Israeli army to a standstill during a month of fighting in south Lebanon. Since then, the Shiite group has been careful to avoid overt military action in the Shebaa Farms or elsewhere along the border. The threat of a more destructive war than 2006 has served as a deterrence not only to Hezbollah, but also to Israel. 

However, Feb. 24 may have broken that period of mutual deterrence. That night, Israeli jets struck a Hezbollah target near the village of Janta on Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. The target of the attack, the first by Israel on Lebanese territory since 2006, reportedly was a consignment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles.

In the past year Israel has staged at least six attacks against Syrian military sites, reportedly hitting air defense systems as well as long-range rockets and anti-ship missiles that could have been destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Hezbollah admitted that one of its facilities had been targeted and vowed to “choose the appropriate time, place and method of response.”

Four days later, two Grad rockets fired from inside Syria landed near an Israeli military outpost on Mount Hermon. On March 5, Israeli troops spotted and opened fire at three men attempting to plant a roadside bomb beside the Israeli security fence in the Golan Heights. The Israeli military said the three men were “affiliated with Hezbollah” and that the planned bomb ambush was thwarted.

The most significant incident occurred March 13, when two roadside bombs exploded against an Israeli military patrol deep inside the Shebaa Farms. There were no casualties in the attack, but it was the first in the Shebaa Farms since the 2006 war and only the second deep penetration roadside bomb ambush in the area since 2000. Hezbollah has not formally commented on any of the attacks or attempted ambushes in the Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms.

Avoiding all-out war

There have been several incidents of small arms fire and mortar rounds falling on the Israeli-occupied Golan in the past two years, usually interpreted by the Israelis as unintentional spillover from clashes between the Syrian Army and rebel forces.

However, there was only one previous roadside bomb attack against Israeli troops in December near the location of Tuesday’s bombing. Like the more recent attacks in the Golan, there was no claim of responsibility, but the December bombing came three days after the assassination of Hassan Laqqis, a top Hezbollah commander, in Beirut, suggesting that it too was carried out by the Shiite organization. 

The difficulty for Israel is how to retaliate without sparking a a fresh conflict with Hezbollah.

“We don’t have any intention of escalating the situation with Hezbollah and go into another war right now,” says Brig. Gen. Sofrin (res.). “Therefore, if Israel chooses to react, it’s going to be something very specific, very limited, accompanied with the right message, ‘Ok, we’ve had enough in this round’.”

The question now is whether Tuesday’s roadside bomb ambush, if carried out by Hezbollah, is considered by the group sufficient retaliation for last month’s air strike on Janta or whether more attacks will follow.

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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