The attack against Hezbollah commanders near Quneitra on the Golan Heights on Sunday has gotten another plot twist.
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Iran’s announcement on Monday that Gen. Mohammed Allahdadi of the Revolutionary Guard was killed in the strike, attributed to Israel in the foreign media, puts Israel and Iran - and not just Hezbollah - in the heart of the tension.
It turns out that Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the late Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, was not the highest-ranking fighter to be killed in the bombing.
Allahdadi was the aide to Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Corps and the person in charge of Iran’s terror activity and intelligence abroad. Next to him, the younger Mughniyeh is almost small fry. According to a report published Monday by Agence France Press that not been confirmed by Tehran, five additional Iranian officers were killed in the bombing, in addition to Allahdadi and six Hezbollah men.
The identities of the deceased complicate the situation. Israel and Iran have been trading accusations of aggression for years. Israel revealed details of Iranian support for Hezbollah and Palestinian terror, while Iran has accused Israel of assassinating its nuclear scientists and perpetrating cyber attacks on its nuclear facilities. But this wasn’t an explosive device planted by a mysterious motorcyclist in the heart of Tehran or a computer virus that leaves no trace when it disrupts the operation of centrifuges. The two jeeps were bombed from the air just a few kilometer from Israel’s border with Syria, and Israel is the only power in the area, apart from Syria, using air power.
More official and detailed declarations by both Iran and Hezbollah will surely come later. Meanwhile, according to media outlets close to Hezbollah, the Shi’ite organization is planning swift revenge on Israel but will try not to get dragged into a full-scale war. In theory, Iran should have a similar interest. But the negotiations with the world powers over its nuclear program are extremely important to Tehran, as is its aid to the Assad regime in Syria. The question is whether Tehran will choose, under those circumstances, to leave the retaliation to Hezbollah.
This plot entanglement highlights two questions about the decision to carry out the attack. The first concerns the intelligence that preceded the operation: Was Mughniyeh, the commander of Hezbollah’s terror cell on the Golan Heights, the target, or did whoever ordered the air strike on the jeeps know that one of the passengers was an Iranian general? The second question is about the timing of the operation. Was it based solely on an urgent intelligence warning of an immediate operational opportunity, or was Israel’s upcoming election a factor?
The problem with this discussion is that it’s being conducted under a thick and unnecessary fog of concealment. Officially, Israel is maintaining its policy of ambiguity. It is neither confirming nor denying its role in Sunday’s attack, just as it hasn’t addressed most of the previous attacks against Hezbollah weapons convoys that have been attributed to the Israel Air Force. But the lead headline in Israel Hayom, which could be called the newspaper of the Israeli government, crowed, “Our forces attacked a cell of senior terrorists in the Syrian Golan.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets to have it both ways: The intelligence and military accomplishment of the attack can be marketed to the Israeli public (which is due to vote in March), but Netanyahu does not have to address the arguments it elicits. If Iran and Hezbollah decide to exercise restraint in response to the killings of their commanders, the issue will eventually become less relevant. But if an escalation ensues, with attacks and counterattacks that will affect the agenda of the elections, it will be hard to ignore the topic.
The first person to indirectly hint at a political context was actually Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who in an interview on Sunday with an ultra-Orthodox radio station insulted Zionist Camp leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni by saying they contributed nothing to national security.
The intelligence assessment that neither Hezbollah nor Israel really wants another war right now apparently still stands. But in July 2006, neither Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah nor then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert realized in real time that their courses of action (Hezbollah’s abduction of Israeli soldiers and Israel’s attack on rockets hidden in the homes of Hezbollah operatives) would necessarily lead to war.
Regional circumstances have changed radically in the last eight and a half years. Syria’s civil war has weakened the regime of President Bashar Assad, while Iran and Hezbollah have been setting the tone in the radical Shi’ite alliance. At the same time, Hezbollah is facing an unfamiliar military challenge, with Sunni organizations conducting a brutal war against it in Syria while also chipping away at it on its home court of Lebanon.
Hezbollah has recently been trying to conduct a more aggressive deterrent policy against Israel. In the wake of a series of operations attributed to Israel, including air strikes along the Syrian and Lebanese borders and an assassination in Beirut, Hezbollah rejiggered its retaliation strategy, as Nasrallah declared openly, and Israel was targeted for rocket fire and explosive charges on the Golan Heights and on Har Dov.
Israelis have no reason to shed tears over Jihad Mughniyeh, a second-generation terrorist, nor over the others who were killed with him. Even if those disseminating information about the younger Mughniyeh hide behind the rather ridiculous title of “Western intelligence sources” (west of Quneitra, apparently), the information is reliable and known to Western intelligence agencies. Mughniyeh was operating terror networks on the Golan Heights that were behind a series of border attacks and was certainly planning additional attacks, as Nasrallah hinted.
To date, Hezbollah has tried to meet all its public promises to avenge attacks attributed to Israel. Imad Mughniyeh’s 2008 assassination in Damascus in 2008 — also attributed to Israel — was followed by around 20 attempted attacks on Jewish and Israeli targets abroad before one finally succeeded: the July 2012 attack in Bulgaria, in which five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed. The attacks on the Golan and at Har Dov last year were also preceded by public threats. Since Sunday night, all the media outlets affiliated with Hezbollah have been announcing that the attack would be avenged.
The most likely direction for the group to take is another attack abroad for which it will not take responsibility, so as not to pay a diplomatic price, or an attempt at a sophisticated attack on the Lebanese or Syrian border. While it would prefer to respond without being drawn into a wider conflict, it’s hard to know if Israel will agree to stand down.
The last time there was high tension between the two sides was in September, when Hezbollah set off two groups of explosive charges on Har Dov in response to the death of one of its sappers as he was dismantling an ostensibly Israeli intelligence device in southern Lebanon. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded, and the army said that only the cautious behavior of the force prevented the deaths of many soldiers. After that incident the inner cabinet was not convened to deliberate on how Israel would have responded had soldiers been killed. Instead, Israel held back.
Before Nasrallah reacts to events himself, he tends to signal his intentions through a journalist who is close to him — the editor of the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, Ibrahim Al Amin. In an article Amin wrote Monday, he sketched out the parameters of a future war with Israel, including the firing of thousands of rockets at the home front, attacks on civilian infrastructure targets and the deployment of Hezbollah forces in the Galilee. We will have to wait and see what the organization will do — or perhaps more importantly, what Iran will tell it to do.