Hezbollah responds to Israeli assassination of commander

Two weeks after the assassination of its notorious member Samir Quntar, Hezbollah finally carried out its repeated threats to retaliate against Israel.

At 3:15 PM on Jan. 4, Hezbollah targeted an Israeli military patrol with an IED attack across the Blue Line on the Zabadeen-Kafra road in the Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah quickly claimed responsibility, saying its “Martyr Samir Quntar Group” carried out the attack. The group’s statement alleged that the explosive had damaged one Israeli Humvee and completely destroyed another, killing its four occupants. A “security source” told Hezbollah’s Al-Manar that the destroyed vehicle was carrying a high-ranking Israeli officer. However, Israeli sources said that the attack targeted two heavy-armored vehicles (one of which was a D-9 bulldozer), not a Humvee, and did not result in any Israeli casualties.

Israel, which had been shelling the Lebanese border for days to deter a Hezbollah attack, responded by shelling Hezbollah locations in south Lebanon, in the vicinity of Kfar Shouba, Al-Abbassiyeh, Bastra, Maheediyeh and al-Wazaniyeh. But, within two hours the entire event was over. Even Hezbollah’s Al-Manar almost immediately went back to reporting on incidents involving local soccer teams.

Over the course of these last two weeks, Israel and Hezbollah have been trading threats and warnings, giving a deceptive impression that a large-scale attack was being planned. In the end, the attack amounted to very little and followed the pattern of Hezbollah’s recent attacks on Israeli targets.

Hezbollah has been at war with Israel since the group’s inception in 1983. The first phase of that conflict was an all-out war between the two sides. It began while Israel was occupying Lebanese territory up to Beirut after its 1982 invasion. It continued after Israel withdrew its forces in 1985 to a 328-square-mile “security zone” of Lebanese territory along the border, and ended after Israel withdrew its forces from Lebanon on May 24, 2000.

The second phase began in October of that year, and became known as the so-called Shebaa Farms Conflict (2000-2006), lasting until June of 2006. Under the pretext that Israel was still holding an 8-square-mile area known as Shebaa Farms, which it claimed were occupied Lebanese land (Israel occupied the Farms during the Six Day War in 1967 during its Golan Heights offensive and asserts they are Syrian), Hezbollah initiated a low-level conflict against the IDF. The group’s attacks were confined to the Shebaa Farms and mostly avoided civilian targets or attacks within internationally recognized Israeli territory. The point was to harass the Israelis with rocket and mortar attacks, to keep the conflict on a simmer but not lead to an all-out war.

Hezbollah’s “rules” for this conflict were simple, and in line with its principles of warfare: Hurt Israel and then stop before it abandons restraint. The Israelis acted in a similar manner, confining their attacks on Hezbollah to assassinations, limited airstrikes and artillery shelling.

Since Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah broke from that pattern once: on July 12, 2006, when it carried out the attack that precipitated the Second Lebanon War, by shelling pre-1967 northern Israel, and kidnapping two Israeli soldiers and killing three others in a cross-border raid. Hezbollah would later admit that it regretted carrying out the operation.

After the 2006 war, hostilities ceased along the border between the two sides until Hezbollah intervened in the Syrian Civil War, when Israel began carrying out strikes against Hezbollah targets in order to prevent it from acquiring “game changing weapons.” Ever since, Hezbollah and Israel have been engaged in a low-level conflict according to the “Shebaa Rules.”

While Hezbollah and Israel remain dedicated to each other’s destruction, for the time being, both sides want to strike at each other, while avoiding a full war.

Hezbollah is under domestic pressure over its involvement in Syria. It wants to maintain its veneer of “resistance” against Israel and deter the Israelis from continuing to attack its assets in Syria without entering a full-blown war with the IDF. Despite Hezbollah’s rhetoric, however, with its forces fully invested in saving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime – an existential matter for the group – and having lost one-tenth of its fighting force, it simply can’t afford one. Hezbollah is also exploiting its presence in Syria to lay the groundwork for turning the Golan Heights into an additional front against Israel. A miscalculation could cause it to lose all of its gains, in Lebanon and in Syria. Israel is also not interested in a war because of its concern over its ability to cope with Hezbollah’s vast arsenal of rockets and missiles, which can now reach any point in the Jewish State.

So, in order to ensure that their attacks have predictable outcomes, both sides are attacking each other in accordance with the Shebaa Rules, allowing them to strike at each other while avoiding a large-scale war that neither side currently wants.

That is not to say that Israel and Hezbollah will not engage in an overt war in the future. Mistakes and miscalculations, like in 2006, can happen again. Leaving that aside, a war between the Jewish State and the Party of God is inevitable, but not on the horizon, even if the IDF’s suspicions that Hezbollah carried out the attack to learn Israel’s responses prove to be true. Hezbollah’s response to Quntar’s assassination demonstrated that. Its limited attack was meant to lay Quntar’s assassination to rest, explaining its inflated claims regarding Israeli casualties. Israel’s response was equally limited. What both sides were signaling was a return to the routine.

David Daoud is an Arabic-Language Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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