Israel and Hezbollah’s tit-for-tat military aggressions last month are prompting concern about an impending all-out war, but more powerful interests may prevail to keep these enemies at bay.
An old Israeli tank sits in a position in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria,Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015.
BEIRUT — On Jan. 18, six Hezbollah military officers and a general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) were targeted and killed by a missile in Quneitra, Syria, in an aerial attack allegedly carried out by Israel.
The Hezbollah commanders who were killed are believed to have been leading plans to transfer more Hezbollah forces into the area, Syria’s Golan Heights, to fight al-Qaida forces battling Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is currently in control of the area, where the Quneitra Crossing, a border station between Israel and Syria, is located. The al-Qaida affiliate in Syria captured the post in August. The area is only 45 miles south of Damascus, which makes it a strategic priority for Assad, who has been battling extremists.
The area is important to Israel, as well. If Hezbollah and Iran were to control Quneitra, it would potentially create an unprecedented front for Hezbollah against Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Golan Heights, and even possibly to Israel’s border with Jordan.
One of the likely targets of the Quneitra attack was Abu Ali Tabatabai, a Hezbollah commander, who is believed to have been charge of organizing the Golan front and fighting al-Qaida in the area. Tabatabai was reportedly under the command of Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, the IRGC general who died in the attack, who reportedly followed the commands of IRGC Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani. Tabatabai has been reported as alive and in “good health” by an obscure Syrian website, Breaking News Syria.
Another important military leader among the Hezbollah dead was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh. One of the top commanders of the organization, Imad was assassinated in Damascus in 2008 by the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad.
Among other attacks, Imad was alleged to have been responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, which killed 63 people, and the torture and killing of William F. Buckley, the CIA’s Lebanon station chief, in 1985.
The four other Hezbollah operatives that were killed have been named as: “’Sayyed Abbas’ Abbas Ibrahim Hijazi; ‘Kazem’ Mohammed Ali Hassan Abu al-Hassan; ‘Daniel’ Ghazi Ali Dawi; ‘Ihab’ Ali Hassan Ibrahim.”
With assistance from Iran, Hezbollah formed in 1982 as a resistance group against Israel’s illegal occupation of Lebanon. The popularity of the group skyrocketed in May 2000, even among Lebanon’s Christian and Sunni communities and others across the Middle East, who were also against the Israeli occupation. That was the year Israel retreated from Lebanon, marking the first time the Israeli state had ever given up occupied territory in response to an Arab-led resistance movement.
Despite Israel’s retreat and United Nations Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for the group to disarm, Hezbollah maintains that Israel continues to pose a threat to Lebanon and the region. This threat, according to Hezbollah, is why the group must maintain its arms.
Enemy of my enemy
One of the most insidious clarifications to come out of the attack is that Israel is supporting al-Qaida in Syria via the Nusra Front, albeit indirectly.
“They provide them with intelligence information about the deployment of Hezbollah troops and Syrian army troops,” Hilal Khashan, director of the Political Studies department at the American University of Beirut, told MintPress News.
When asked for proof, Khashan said, “These things cannot be documented. There’s no formal agreement between Israel and al Nusra with formal documentation.”
“Gossip is an important means of information dissemination in this part of the world,” he added, noting that it is no secret that Israel treats Nusra Front fighters at Israeli hospitals.
Netanyahu looks at Syrian patient IDF field hospital. Photo :Kobi Gideon/GPO
“In the past two years the Israel Defense Forces [IDF] have been engaged in humanitarian, life-saving aid to wounded Syrians, irrespective of their identity,” an IDF spokesperson told i24 News, a media outlet based in Jaffa, Israel, when asked whether Israeli hospitals were admitting Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria fighters.
“Even Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on more than one occasion visited al-Nusra’s wounded in Israeli hospitals!” exclaimed Khashan.
Netanyahu visited an IDF hospital that treats wounded Syrians in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in February 2014. Israeli media framed the story to demonstrate Israel’s compassion toward Syria and to make Iran look bad. By showing the wounded, it was believed, the world would see how Iran supports the Assad regime in Syria.
The latest attack by Israel in Quneitra bolstered the Nusra Front and other rebels controlling the area, but it also served a core strategic objective of the IDF: to keep Hezbollah and Iran at bay while also promoting the deterioration of Assad’s regime.
Zvi Bar’el, a Haaretz newspaper columnist, asserted that Israel is drawing a red line with the Quneitra attack.“[A]s long as the rebel groups control a portion of the Syrian Golan, and even if they are affiliated with Al-Qaida – Israel will not view that as a threat per se,” he wrote on Jan. 20.
“Still,” Bar’el continued, “the entry of Hezbollah forces and Iranian fighters there would be considered a strategic turning point that would likely be met by violent Israeli resistance.”
Hezbollah’s response and reflections on 2006
Israeli soldiers watch as a truck carries a military vehicle that was hit by a missile fired by Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015.
Hezbollah responded to the aerial attack by destroying an IDF military convoy in an area called Shebaa Farms, which is occupied by Israel, claimed by Lebanon, and considered Syrian by the United Nations. The attack killed two Israeli soldiers, Captain Yohai Kalangel, 25, and Sergeant Dor Nini, 20. Seven others were also wounded in the attack.
Analysts, including Khashan, have speculated that Hezbollah limited its attack to Shebaa Farms, which is not officially Israeli territory, because it wanted to avoid a scenario similar to 2006.
“No matter what Israel does in terms of a retaliation, Hezbollah will not dare open a new front from southern Lebanon because they know the consequences,” said Khashan.
He was referring to the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel. Tensions slowly heated up between the two entities in 2005, after Hezbollah attempted to kidnap Israeli soldiers to use them as a bargaining chip for their own people locked up in Israeli prisons.
But on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah changed the rules of engagement between itself and Israel by launching an attack on Israeli soil. It ambushed a military convoy in northern Israel, kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing three others. The IDF chased the Hezbollah military into Lebanon, where five more Israeli soldiers were killed and a Merkava tank was destroyed.
“From a tactical standpoint, the operation was a stunning success,” wrote Augustus Richard Norton in his book “Hezbollah,” which is a short history of the organization.
“Although it anticipated Israeli retaliation, the leadership expected to be able to ride it out,” he continued.
However, he concluded, “Hezbollah had made a major miscalculation.”
The next day, July 13, Israel blockaded Lebanon’s seaport and bombed the country’s only commercial airport, Beirut–Rafic Hariri International Airport. Key infrastructure, including bridges and highways, was also targeted. Full-blown war had engulfed the country.
Unexpectedly for Israel, however, Hezbollah seemed to be ready. On July 14, Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, released a recording that said, “You wanted an open war, and we are heading for open war. We are ready for it.”
Those listening to Nasrallah’s broadcast were then invited to look toward the sea. And, at that moment, the INS Hanit, an Israeli Navy ship off the coast of Beirut, was hit by a Hezbollah anti-ship missile. Four sailors were killed and the ship sustained massive damage.
Toward the beginning of the conflict, Sunni Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, supported Israel, partly because of the resurgence of Shiite groups throughout the region thought to be allied with Iran.
However, citizens in those countries began to protest after Israel expanded its campaign to include hundreds of targets throughout Lebanon, including Beirut’s densely populated southern suburb of Dahieh.
Further reinforcing the notion that Hezbollah was a stronger foe than Israel had anticipated, the group struck Haifa with rockets. Many of the Israeli city’s 275,000 citizens fled.
The conflict ended with a cease-fire agreement 34 days after it had started. Approximately 500,000 people in northern Israel and 900,000 people in southern Lebanon were displaced, and 1,109 Lebanese and 43 Israeli civilians were killed. Damages totaled $500 million in Israel and $4 billion in Lebanon. This came just 15 years after the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which had already caused unprecedented damage in the country.
In his book, Norton summed up the consequences of the conflict:
“Both sides paid a heavy price for the war, with Lebanon paying the heaviest by far. But it was a war without an unequivocal winner. Both Israel and Hezbollah went to war to bolster their credibility and perceived ability to deter enemies, yet in neither case did they fully succeed. Each side seriously misread its adversary. After the war of arms ended, the war of words began, as each side struggled to persuade friend and foe alike of their victory, revealing the fragility of the claims of both sides.”
The end game
A Spanish U.N. official takes pictures of an observation tower damaged by an Israeli airstrike in Abbasiyeh village that killed a Spanish UN Peacekeeper.
It seems that neither side wants an escalation of hostilities at the present moment. It has been reported that Israel recently sent a message to Iran’s foreign ministry — a signal that the two entities have open channels of communication — in which it implored Iran not to escalate tensions following the Jan. 18 attack.
Israel has reached out to Iran because of the Iranian general, Mohammed Ali Allahdadi, killed in the attack.
According to Ala al-Din Boroujerdi, chairman of Iran’s national security and foreign policy parliamentary committee, the message from Israel stated that the country had no desire for the “problem to continue and cause an escalation, and that Israel expected that the other side would behave similarly as well.”
Boroujerdi also said, “The Zionists already have experience in five wars, and I think that is enough for them. … I do not think that the Zionist entity wants a comprehensive war because such a decision will cause a repeat of their previous defeats.”
According to Haaretz’s Bar’el, Hezbollah would not want to open up a front with Israel because it would detract from its current efforts to aid the Syrian army and fight rebels.
Meanwhile, Iran hopes to negotiate a settlement in Syria profitable to its own interests, whether that includes Syria’s Assad or not, Bar’el explained in a Jan. 29 analysis. He wrote, “The exchanges of fire between Hezbollah and Israel are secondary and even marginal and, at least under the current circumstances, must be contained and not allowed to thwart Iran’s strategic aspirations.”
He warned that if Israel were to strike other targets important to Hezbollah and Iran that it might miscalculate their importance to the two entities.
“This is where the danger lies — in Israel misreading the map of Iranian interests and in secondary events like the killing of senior figures or unintentional gunfire that will send the sides rolling down a slippery slope that no one intended to reach,” he concluded.