An Israeli helicopter attack killed five members of Hezbollah operating out of Syria over the weekend. Among the dead were senior Hezbollah figures and an Iranian general, raising tensions in Lebanon of a potential return to hostilities between the two neighboring countries.
The attack – which killed Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh’s son, Jihad, a high ranking member by the name of Mohammad Ahmad Issa – took place near the Golan Heights and is the latest in a string of escalating attacks by Israel on Hezbollah targets in Syria.
It is also one of the biggest losses inflicted on Hezbollah by Israel in recent years.
To date, Israel has not claimed responsibility for the attack. Nonetheless, international as well as local Lebanese media, including the Hezbollah affiliated Al-Manar, seem certain the attack bears the hallmark of the Israeli military.
Analysts, speaking to Al-Arabiya News, said the attack represented a major breach to Hezbollah’s security and a tactical misjudgment on the part of the Iranian-backed militant group.
“This was a colossal failure … because they [Hezbollah] put this number of senior figures in one spot and at the same observation point and at the same time,” Wehbe Katicha, a former Lebanese army general, told Al Arabiya News.
“You rarely see armies committing such a mistake,” he said.
“This is represents a weak point of Hezbollah because of this behavior,” he added.
While not describing it as a failure, Dr. Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said the incident was a “major security breach” to Hezbollah’s security apparatus.
“Hezbollah moves secretly and a number of ranking officials are even tighter. The fact is Israel had information from within,” he said.
A member of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah’s inner circle was recently reported to be spying for Israel. Local media identified the man as Mohammad Shorba. This is one of the most pressing and prominent breaches in the group since its formation.
Katicha noted Shorba’s case, saying the Shiite group was always vulnerable to such infiltration.
“This is not only a failure from [strategic] point of view but also it is obvious that Hezbollah’s apparatus has been infiltrated by Israeli intelligence,” Katicha said, referring to Shorba’s case.
“Shorba was arrested by Hezbollah. He was a senior figure,” he said.
“This may not be the only infiltration and therefore as a group … it is always vulnerable to such infiltration,” he added.
Can Hezbollah respond?
In an article on its English language website, Al-Manar rounded up the reaction of the Israeli media with a headline that read: “Israeli Media: Hezbollah Response Certain, But How and When?”
While analysts said Hezbollah might respond, there were mixed views on the imminence of such an attack.
“Hezbollah will retaliate for the assassination of [these] cadres but it will not happen immediately,” said Dr. Haytham Mouzahem, a Lebanese political analyst and the Director of the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies. “The Israelis are on high alert now and the party will study the best way to [take] revenge.”
Mouzahem said the retaliation could be in the Golan, the Shebaa Farms, a disputed area that Israeli currently controls and Lebanon claims are occupied by their Southern neighbors, or even beyond.
“This is open confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, not only in Lebanon but [it has extended] to the Syrian side where the assassination took place,” said Kamel Wazne, Director of American Strategic Studies in Beirut and a political analyst.
“Usually when Hezbollah declares the name of their martyrs then revenge will be taken,” Wazne added.
In the past, such attacks have struck fear into the Lebanese populace as scarred memories linger from the 2006 July War. But regional events over the last few years have changed the game a bit. With Hezbollah engaged in the Syrian Civil War, many analysts believe they are hesitant to open up a second front on the southern border with the Israelis.
“Hezbollah will respect the Lebanese government,” said Wazne. “Their [retaliatory] measures will take this into consideration.”
Still, Wazne said, a full-on war will not be entirely taken off the table if Hezbollah feels that is the proper action to take. More likely to happen however is a series of small scale, tit-for-tat, targeted attacks in the same vein as yesterday’s.
Katicha was also convinced that Hezbollah, despite its announcements, would unlikely launch any imminent attack from Lebanese soil.
“I think Hezbollah has no interest in launching a response from Lebanese soil because it knows this will lead to a catastrophe in Lebanon,” he said.
“If it does carry out such an action, it will destroy Lebanon … and then all the Lebanese, even the communities supporting it, will turn against them,” the former general said.
Mouzahem said that Israel decided to strike at Hezbollah yesterday to send a message.
“Don’t cross the red line,” he said. Attacking Israeli troops and settlers from the Golan area or receiving sophisticated weapons – like the Iranian Fateh-110 missiles that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah announced the party had acquired since 2006 – are two of those red lines, according to Mouzahem.
“Israel wants to say that its security in the Golan Heights and Galilee is a red-line. Meanwhile, the Israelis believe that Hezbollah has been behind some attacks against [Israeli] troops in Golan – from the Syrian side.”
Mouzahem said that Israel likely believes Hezbollah is training members for an attack on Golan and this latest operation was a preemptive attempt at thwarting future attacks.
Mouzahem and Khashan also brought up the correlation of Israeli elections. In the past, election years in Israel have coincided with military operations to drum up national unity.
“Hezbollah knows the timing of the Israeli attack is to serve [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu in the elections,” said Mouzahem. “Of course, the retaliation will be limited since the Lebanese group does not want to get involved in a comprehensive war with Israel now.”
Khashan said that Israel had called Nasrallah’s bluff. “Hezbollah was trying to later the rules of engagement in the Golan Heights.”
Nasrallah’s fiery speech from last week warned Israel of repercussions should they attack Hezbollah or the Assad regime in Syria. Khashan said the latest attack has put Nasrallah in an awkward position. “The Shiite community is restless,” he said. “[Nasrallah] has to do something but doesn’t have anything to do. It’s a very serious problem.”
Meanwhile, in Beirut on Sunday night, rumors swirled over whether or not Hezbollah’s leader Nasrallah would take to the airwaves and comment on the recent events. While it is still unclear where these rumors came from, Lebanese media picked them up and eventually had to release comment that Nasrallah would not speak that night.
“[Nasrallah] will appear and will decide what to say and how to say it,” said Wazne.
“Revenge … could take place anywhere or anytime,” Wazne said.