The big question worrying Israel following the assassination of Samir Kuntar was whether Hezbollah will respond and, if so, how and on which front. The answer does not depend solely on the Lebanese Shi’ite group, but rather, mainly, on what Hezbollah’s masters in Tehran decide.
Hezbollah responded this evening by firing three rockets from Lebanon that struck in open areas in the Galilee. And its rocket men know to be accurate if they want.
The IDF responded with artillery shells and said it holds the Lebanese army solely responsible for actions carried out on its territory.
The question now is whether a vicious circle of escalation will develop.
It seems at the moment that neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to escalate the tensions. But the situation is volatile and could easily get out of hand.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has already said in the past that the group will retaliate to any strike by Israel, and, indeed, following the assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh in a Golan Heights attack attributed to Israel last January, Hezbollah ambushed the IDF in the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) area, hitting an army vehicle and killing two soldiers.
Hezbollah also has tended to retaliate when attacked in strikes on Lebanese territory attributed to the Israel Air Force against weapons shipments intended for the organization.
However, it also has been known to let alleged Israeli strikes slide without retaliation on more than one occasion.
This time, as well, Hezbollah announced that Israel is responsible for the assassination of Kuntar, but Israel is continuing the thunderous silence it has held since the beginning of the Syrian civil war some five years ago, even when the media ascribe to it air strikes and military activities in Syrian or Lebanese territory.
The belief is that even if Nasrallah and the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani (who is responsible for operating Hezbollah), decide that they cannot let the attack go unanswered, it is not in their interest to carry out an attack on the Israel-Lebanon border because Israel would respond with great force.
In the attack on Saturday attributed to the Israel Air Force – in which missiles were fired at a building in Damascus – Farho Sha’alan, Kuntar’s partner in his terrorist enterprise, and additional field commanders also were killed.
In the last two years, the pair established a front-line group called the “National Syrian Opposition in the Golan,” backed by Hezbollah, the Quds Force and Bashar Assad’s intelligence services, and enlisted or attempted to enlist, mostly without success, Druse from the Golan, Palestinians who live in Syria and Syrians loyal to the Assad regime.
The assassination on Saturday night would constitute a major intelligence achievement for Israel; it is not simple to obtain real-time information on the entry into a safe house by terrorist operatives who know that they are wanted targets for Israel.
Israeli intelligence services have demonstrated in the past that they knows how to obtain pinpoint information that has led to other operations in Damascus, the most wellknown of which is the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, the “defense minister” of Hezbollah who was killed by a car bomb in 2008 in an operation attributed to the Mossad and CIA.
It should be noted that, despite Samir Kuntar’s terrorist past and his involvement in the murder of Danny Haran and his daughter Einat, as well as two police officers on the beach, in Nahariya in 1979, the considerations standing before those who carried out the operation were mainly connected to his current involvement in attempts to organize terrorist attacks on Israel from the Syrian-held side of the Golan Heights.
In other words, the reason for his assassination was not his past actions, but rather the danger he currently posed and his potential to continue to carry out terrorist activities against Israel.
Furthermore, Kuntar was considered an important symbol for Hezbollah, as was evidenced by the well-attended ceremony in which he was welcomed in Beirut in 2008 after Israel released him from prison in a prisoner swap; and by his personal audience with Nasrallah, and his meeting with then-Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Establishing a terrorism infrastructure on the Syrian Golan Heights was to serve as a deterrence and a retaliatory force against alleged Israel Air Force attacks targeting weapons transfers from Syria to Hezbollah.
In this way, Hezbollah asked that Iran act in a way similar to Israel – from Syrian territory so as not to disturb the quiet in Lebanon.
In addition, the terrorism infrastructure was intended to serve as a force that could enable at least a second front against Israel in the event of an escalation on the Lebanese border.
This type of activity on the Golan Heights was also intended to help Hezbollah carry out terrorist activity against Israel without leaving traces that the organization was involved.
No less interesting is the question of whether the missiles on Saturday were fired from planes that flew near the border, but inside Israeli territory, or if the planes penetrated Syrian airspace and got closer to Damascus.
If the strike was carried out from within Israeli territory, it suggests that Israel has decided not to risk a conflict with Russia, or to avoid the danger that Russian air defense systems and its intelligence apparatus deployed in Syria would uncover the operation.
If Israel Air Force jets penetrated Syrian airspace, it suggests that the cooperation with the Russians is much broader and deeper than either side is willing to admit.
And, perhaps, the fire was carried out with missiles fired from Israel, as some foreign reports suggested, out of fear of entanglement with Russia.