BEIRUT — An Israeli air strike that killed one of its favorite sons in Syria last Sunday has put Hezbollah in a dilemma: The Lebanese Shia movement had earlier warned Israel that it could retaliate if its interests in Syria are attacked, but Hezbollah’s leadership is well aware of the dangers of escalation with Israel amid a complicated domestic political environment and a significant military engagement in Syria.
Among those killed when missiles from Israeli drones struck a two-car convoy in the Golan Heights last weekend was Jihad Mughniyah, a 25-year-old being groomed for great things in Hezbollah. His father, Imad, had helped turn the Iran-backed Lebanese organization into the most powerful non-state military actor in the world, before being assassinated by Israel seven years ago.
The missiles also killed Mohammed Issa, a top Hezbollah field commander, Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Mohammed Allahdadi and at least four others.
The air strike — over which Israel continues to offer no official comment — was the most audacious and overt Israeli attack against Hezbollah since the end of the month-long war between the two enemies in 2006. And it came just three days after Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah boasted of his organization’s military strength and warned Israel that it could retaliate to any attacks against Syria, where several thousand Hezbollah fighters are deployed in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. In the past two years, Israeli strikes have targeted weapons consignments believed to be destined for Hezbollah.
“The resistance’s military capabilities grow by the year,” Nasrallah told Lebanon’s Al-Mayadeen news channel. “It now possesses everything the enemy expects and doesn’t expect, including weapons of all types.”
Israel’s Golan air strike was a slap in the face to Nasrallah, putting tremendous pressure on Hezbollah to retaliate. Indeed, the timing and motive for the drone strike baffled analysts in Lebanon and Israel.
Amid official silence, a flurry of statements from Israeli “security sources” have made contradictory claims. One said Israel had been unaware that an Iranian general was in the convoy. Another said intelligence suggested the militants in the vehicles were planning to carry out an attack on Israeli targets in the Golan. But those killed were command-level personnel, not rank-and-file cadres who might be sent to plant roadside bombs or lob rockets.
“One official apologizes anonymously, the other official refuses to apologize anonymously,” wrote commentator Alex Fishman in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth. “We are talking about a potential war and the heads of the state are playing hide and seek.”
Since the 2006 war ended in stalemate after 34 days of fighting, the traditionally volatile Lebanon-Israel border has enjoyed its longest period of calm in a half century. Hezbollah, wary of provoking another war with Israel, has concentrated on boosting its fighting forces and acquiring ever more sophisticated weaponry rather than on harassing Israeli forces along the border.
Other than the air strikes against arms depots in Syria, Israel had kept its post-2006 activities against Hezbollah covert and deniable, mindful that the next war would see Hezbollah’s considerable missile arsenal targeting Tel Aviv.
It is this restraint displayed by both sides over the past eight years that makes Israel’s latest provocation so puzzling — and potentially dangerous.
While Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have warned that Israel will face “ruinous thunderbolts,” Hezbollah has been ominously tight-lipped over its own planned response.
And that has Israelis nervous. Additional troops and tanks, and several Iron Dome missile-interceptor batteries have been sent to Israel’s northern border. On Wednesday, rumors that Hezbollah fighters had slipped into northern Israel sparked panic, and prompted the army to order local citizens to remain in their homes.
On Friday, during a visit to the Israeli army's Northern Command headquarters, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon warned that Israel would “exact a price in case of any harm to Israeli sovereignty, civilians or soldiers”.
The question hanging over an already tense region, now, is how will Hezbollah respond? The timing of the air strike and the caliber of those killed leaves its leaders feeling compelled to retaliate if they are to maintain any degree of deterrence against further Israeli attacks. But neither Hezbollah nor its patron, Iran, have any interest in goading Israel into a fresh war that would likely be the most destructive Lebanon – and Israel –have ever experienced. As a result, Hezbollah finds itself searching for a level of reprisal that stings Israel but does not provoke a cycle of escalation.
Israelis are not alone in feeling anxious. Lebanese politicians, while condemning Israel’s air strike, have pointedly warned that Lebanon can ill-afford to become embroiled in another war with Israel.
“It is no longer acceptable to risk the lives of the people to implement foreign agendas that don’t meet the demands of the Lebanese and achieve their interests,” said Fouad Siniora, a former Lebanese prime minister and political opponent of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah has perhaps three options for retaliation. The first is to stage a deniable attack against an Israeli target overseas. It is believed to have done so previously, most notably two bombings in Buenos Aires: One targeted the Israeli embassy in 1992 in retaliation for the assassination of the then leader of Hezbollah, and another against a Jewish center two years later — the latter attack at the center of a renewed political firestorm in Argentina.
A second option is to ambush Israeli troops either in the Golan Heights, thus keeping it away from Lebanon, or in the Shebaa Farms, an Israeli-occupied mountainside running along Lebanon’s southeast border.
Alternatively, Hezbollah may opt for something more unorthodox, utilizing its impressive arsenal. Possibilities include firing one of its anti-ship cruise missiles at an Israeli naval vessel; dispatching an explosives-laden drone across the border to crash into an Israeli army position; or shooting down an Israeli jet flying a routine reconnaissance mission over Lebanon. (Israel’s nearly daily over flights in Lebanese airspace are breaches of Lebanon’s sovereignty and repeatedly protested by Beirut and the United Nations.)
Nasrallah may provide clues as to his organization’s intentions in a speech scheduled for Jan. 30. Until then, Lebanon and Israel will remain on tenterhooks.