A blow to deterrence?

A strike against Hezbollah on the Golan might prove to have been a miscalculation.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed January 28 when Hezbollah ambushed these IDF vehicles near the village of Ghajar in northern Israel. (photo credit: MARUF KHATIB / REUTERS)
Two Israeli soldiers were killed January 28 when Hezbollah ambushed these IDF vehicles near the village of Ghajar in northern Israel.
(photo credit: MARUF KHATIB / REUTERS)
ON MY way to the Golan Heights at the end of January, I stopped at the Arab village of Ghajar. Located north of the Galilee on the western edge of the Golan Heights, no other place can better illustrate the complex realities of the Middle East with its ethnic, religious and sectarian rifts, as well as its strange and unholy alliances.
Sitting on the Hasbani River – one of the three tributaries of the Jordan River – on the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights, the village is internationally considered to be part of Syria, although Lebanon also claims ownership. Its inhabitants are Alawites, a minority offshoot of Shi’a Islam.
In 1932, the residents of the village were given the option of choosing their nationality and overwhelmingly decided to be a part of Syria, which has a sizable Alawite minority and has been ruled since 1970 by the Alawite Assad family (father and son). Ghajar was considered part of Syria and its residents were counted in the 1960 Syrian census.
On Saturday, June 11, 1967, after the IDF had already defeated the Egyptian and Jordanian armies and captured the West Bank and Sinai Peninsula, Israeli troops climbed and conquered the Golan Heights from the Syrian army. But the troops didn’t enter Ghajar, which remained in no man’s land between Lebanon and Israel.
Only after 75 days did the mukhtar (village chieftain) petition the Israeli military authorities to be occupied by the Jewish state. Israel agreed. In 1981, after the government annexed the Golan Heights, most villagers took Israeli nationality. Some are today members of the Likud ruling party.
However, over the last two decades, the village started to expand northward and some buildings were constructed on the Lebanese side of the border. Consequently, while the inhabitants have Israeli nationality, some of the village buildings and lands have become divided between two sovereignties – Israel and Lebanon.
The situation has been manipulated by Hezbollah, which has used the village and its surroundings as launching pads to send spies into Israel; to involve some villagers in drug deals for information; and in plots to kidnap or ambush Israeli soldiers.
Indeed, the recent tension between Israel and Hezbollah-Iran-Syria culminated at the end of January in the killing of an IDF officer and a soldier in a Hezbollah ambush.
Hezbollah gunmen struck an Israeli patrol on its way to the village firing, from a distance of some four kilometers, five Russian- made Kornet anti-tank missiles. This was Hezbollah’s Iranian-backed revenge for an earlier operation, for which Israel has been held responsible.
Israeli helicopters and drones, according to foreign reports, bombed a convoy of two cars not far from Quneitra, the central town on the Syrian side of the Golan, which is now mostly deserted. Seven people were killed including a senior general of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps who was traveling in the company of six Hezbollah commanders on a reconnaissance mission.
Among them were Hezbollah’s Jihad Mughniyeh and Abu Ali Tabatabai. Jihad was the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a master terrorist who served as the militant Shi’ite organization’s “defense minister.”
The father was killed in Damascus in 2008 after a visit to his lover. Until recently, the assassination was solely attributed to the Mossad.
But the Washington Post and Newsweek have reported that it was a joint Mossad-CIA operation. Mughniyeh senior, second only to Osama Bin Laden on the FBI’s “most wanted terrorists” list, was responsible for the death of hundreds of Americans in Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as many Israelis and Jews around the world.
WITH SUCH a famous father, the son was the darling of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Less than a year ago, Mughniyeh junior was entrusted with building a new “command” on the Syrian Golan to confront and challenge Israel, if needed.
Tabatabai was even more important in the Hezbollah military hierarchy. He was the commander of its special forces, now fighting and dying in the Syrian killing fields, but also entrusted with invading northern Israel and taking over rural communities and military bases if a new war breaks out.
Thus, no one in Israel was likely to shed tears for the death of the Hezbollah commanders and the Iranian general. But some did question the timing, two months before Israeli elections, and wisdom of such an operation.
Among the critics was Labor MK Omer Bar-Lev, a former colonel and commander of Sayeret Matkal, the IDF’s elite special forces unit.
“I wonder if killing Jihad Mughniyeh and the Iranian general was worth the potential risk of regional deterioration” he asserts to The Jerusalem Report.
Since the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, now entering its fifth year, Israel has adopted a policy of non-intervention. The only deviations occurred when “Israeli interests are jeopardized” as Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has declared on numerous occasions.
Israel has answered with measured amounts of artillery or missile fire when its territory on the Golan was targeted occasionally by the Syrian army. According to foreign sources, the Israel Air Force also attacked, on nine occasions, conveys carrying Syrian or Iranian weapons overland from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. For Israel, the acquisition by Hezbollah of long-range advanced missiles or anti-aircraft weapons has been considered to be “a vital interest” that has to be stopped.
In February 2014, the tenth attack attributed to Israel of a convoy and missile store was not in Syrian territory, but on Lebanese soil. This was the first time Israel had violated Lebanese sovereignty near the Syrian border and it was noticed in Dahiya, Hezbollah’s headquarters in southern Beirut.
Hezbollah leader Nasrallah saw this as an Israeli attempt to take advantage of the fact that his movement was heavily embroiled in the Syrian quagmire and to create a new direction from which to attack the Shi’ite group in the event of renewed war between the two sides. He responded by establishing the Hezbollah’s Golan Command, an armed presence along the Israel-Syria border.
During 2014, Hezbollah sent units to the area or hired local recruits to plant explosives on the Golan border.
Israel has long maintained that its ultimate interest is to maintain peace and tranquility along its border with Syria. As part of this effort, the IDF built a field hospital on the border. So far, more than 1,000 Syrian civilians or fighters, regardless of their affiliation (even al-Qaida members) injured in the war, have been treated there or were sent to civilian hospitals. Israel also supplies humanitarian aid to villages on the Syrian side of its border. Lebanese and Iranian media even accuse Israel of cooperating with the Nusra Front, which now controls the 100-kilometer border strip between Israel and Syria.
Here is another aspect of the complex reality of the region. The Nusra Front is considered to be the Syrian branch of al-Qaida.
A force of approximately 5,000, it fights in Syria on two fronts. Together with some other Sunni opposition groups, it is engaged in combat against the regime of Bashar Assad and its shrinking army, as well as Hezbollah, which is the spearhead of Iran’s attempt to prop up the regime. Nusra Front also fights against Islamic State (IS), a force of 30,000 terrorists that controls the northeastern parts of Syria and the border corridor to Iraq. To make the situation even more complicated, Nusra Front has joined forces with IS to spread the war to Lebanon by attacking Hezbollah targets there.
For the time being Nusra Front is not hostile to Israel and maintains cordial relations along the Golan border. In addition, the Alawite residents of Ghajar prefer to side with Israel and be protected from their Hezbollah- Shi’ite brothers and Syrian Alawites.
But, on the other hand, Israel is worried about Hezbollah’s plans to open a second front against Israel from the Golan if a third Lebanese war breaks out. An opportunity presented itself in January to hamper such a move and, according to foreign reports, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon approved the targeted killing of the Hezbollah and Iranian commanders.
Clearly such an attack may endanger the Israeli desire for quiet. Nasrallah claimed in a speech in late January to supporters in Beirut that the ambush near Ghajar was not only a tit-for-tat operation, but also a reaction to what he and his commanders perceive as increased Israeli efforts to break the tacit understandings between the sides.
As a result, Israel and Hezbollah were on the verge of a major confrontation. It was prevented at the last minute when Netanyahu and Ya’alon decided to restrain themselves and not retaliate against the ambush and killing of the two IDF soldiers.
For some, this writer included, leaving the last word and barrage of rockets to Hezbollah means Israel caved in. Israeli deterrence, which has maintained the calm and tranquility for eight and a half years since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, along the Israeli-Lebanese border, has been eroded.
In retrospect, the decision to kill the Hezbollah commanders was a miscalculation – it would have been better not to be tempted to operate in the Golan since, at the end of the day, Hezbollah has gained the upper hand.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman