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For Now, Hezbollah's Response Seems Calculated and Limited

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Evacuating a wounded soldier from the scene of an attack by Hezbollah on the Israel-Lebanon border, January 28, 2015.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

It’s a distinction that is hard for Israelis to hear, certainly when the two soldiers who were killed Wednesday at Har Dov have not yet been buried. But Hezbollah’s response to last week’s airstrike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, which killed Jihad Mughniyeh and six other Hezbollah operatives (as well as several Iranian military officials) and has been attributed to Israel, has, for the moment at least, been calculated and limited.

Hezbollah responded to the attack on its convoy with a focused assault on Israeli military vehicles (not civilian targets), directing its fire to the slopes of Har Dov, on the road leading to the village of Ghajar. For the meantime, the organization is not taking more ambitious action or opening new fronts.

The Israeli response has been restricted to strikes against possible Hezbollah positions in the areas near the border. How long this will last depends on decisions that have been made at the cabinet level in consultation with the security establishment. It seems that Israel does not want an escalation.

Even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to show how firm he is on security ahead of the election, all-out war with Hezbollah is another thing entirely. It is hard to see why Netanyahu would think a broad military conflict would necessarily end in a persuasive victory that would bolster his position.

Thus it seems that the prime minister has a clear interest in ending this round of violence soon. As always, rhetoric must be distinguished from actions. Over the years, Israel and Lebanon have figured out ways to signal their true intentions. If Netanyahu threatens to pulverize Hezbollah, but the Israel Air Force makes do with bombarding a few empty, rocky hills in southern Lebanon, they will know in Lebanon that Israel wants to end this round.

To judge from Hezbollah’s moves so far — rocket fire on the Golan on Tuesday and Wednesday’s attack on an Israeli military vehicle — it, too is seeking a controlled conflict. The question mark over the coming weeks has to do with how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah regards the death of Mughniyeh, who has special standing in Hezbollah thanks to his father, slain Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh.

If Nasrallah crosses the line, for example by attacking Israeli targets abroad or deep within Israel, that will show that this time there is a personal settling of accounts.

The unit that was attacked Wednesday by anti-tank missiles had come to the area to beef up forces in light of tensions over the past 10 days. The truck in which the soldiers were killed was not reinforced against live fire attacks. Even a reinforced vehicle may not have withstood such a precise strike by an advanced anti-tank missile such as the Kornet.

This incident is reminiscent of the attack on the advance command post of the 188th Armored Brigade commander at the beginning of the Gaza war in July, near Kibbutz Be’eri. There, commanders who toured the front line despite not being sufficiently protected encountered a Hamas force that had infiltrated through a tunnel, and an officer and a soldier were killed.

The preliminary information about Wednesday’s Har Dov attack indicates that this is an ongoing problem in the Israel Defense Forces: an entire zone is prepared for the worst — except in a few places where it is not. A more thorough operational probe should be conducted, both because of the price that was paid and because of the sensitive timing of the incident.

It must be hoped that this painful blow will mark an end to the current round of fighting rather than increase violence. But even if this round is over, we must continue monitoring developments in the north.

It is reasonable to assume that Hezbollah will continue to rely on arms convoys from Iran that go through Syria and into Lebanon. Under these circumstances, will Israel strike the convoys, knowing that Hezbollah could renew attacks from the Lebanese border?

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