BEATING their chests in anger and chanting “Death to Israel”, thousands of mourners marched yesterday in a funeral procession for Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh, killed with five other militants in an airstrike in Syria’s Golan Heights.
Tehran added to the combustible mix by saying the strike — neither confirmed nor denied by Israel — also killed an Iranian general, underscoring Iran and Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the area on Israel’s doorstep.
The website of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards said General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was on assignment, giving “crucial advice” to Syrians fighting terrorists, a reference to Sunni rebels and Islamic extremists fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Allahdadi is not the first Iranian general to die in Syria. Iran accuses Israel of involvement in the killing of Hassan Shateri in February 2013 as he travelled from Syria to Lebanon. Shateri was also in the guards.
Allahdadi’s presence in the Golan drew further attention to Iran’s deep involvement in propping up Assad and is bound to unsettle Israel.
Sunday’s deadly attack placed Hezbollah in a tough spot, as it weighs carefully how to respond. A significant retaliation risks drawing even tougher Israeli reprisals, plunging Lebanon into yet another crippling war with the Jewish state for which there is very little appetite among Lebanese public opinion.
Stretched thin and neck-deep in Syria’s civil war where the group’s Shia fighters are battling alongside Assad’s forces, Hezbollah must also decide whether it can afford to open up another front with Israel. Mughniyeh, who was buried in the Shia-dominated neighbourhood of Ghobeiri in southern Beirut, did not hold a particularly senior rank in the party, but he was the son of Imad, a top Hezbollah operative considered to have built Hezbollah’s military operations infrastructure and the second most revered figure.
Imad was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus in a bombing that Hezbollah says was carried out by Mossad.
The 25-year-old Mughniyeh took on a much more prominent role after the death of his father.
He has been photographed with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and with the Iranian General Ghasem Soleimani, highlighting his prominence within the group.
“For Hezbollah leaders, rank and file, and core supporters, the attack against Jihad Mughniyeh is akin to an attack against a member of their own family,” said Randa Slim, a director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“The fact that Hezbollah has not avenged Imad Mughniyeh’s death to date raises the bar for Nasrallah and Hezbollah military leadership to react in a big way this time … irrespective of the risks of an escalation,” she said.
Mughniyeh, who had recently been entrusted with overseeing operations in the Golan Heights, is the group’s most prominent figure to die in Syria since Hezbollah joined the civil war in 2012.
Although he did not mention Lebanon or Syria specifically, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday “Israel is adamant that it will have the right to defend itself against all those who wish to propagate terror and other attacks against its citizens, against its territory”.
Since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria targeting sophisticated weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles, believed to be destined for Hezbollah.
The last such airstrike was early last month, when Israeli warplanes struck near Damascus’ international airport, as well as outside a town close to the Syria-Lebanon border.
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