Last week’s incidents in the north — rockets fired from Syria at the Golan Heights and the Galilee, followed almost immediately by retaliatory strikes on the Islamic Jihad cell Israel believes was responsible — presumably reflect an Iranian effort to maintain a limited front from which it can engage Israel without igniting a broader war and without overly entangling its more important regional partners, the Assad regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thus even though its latest attack on Israel failed, additional attempts are likely at least once every few months.
The Israeli-Syrian border first heated up in early 2013, after nearly four years of almost total quiet, as a side effect of the Syrian civil war. Initially, Hezbollah used it to launch small-scale attacks in response to strikes on arms convoys along the Syrian-Lebanese border and assassinations of its operatives in Lebanon for which it blamed Israel. Later, Iran (more specifically, the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards) activated two local networks in the Golan Heights. One was commanded by Samir Kuntar, a convicted murderer whom Israel freed in a prisoner swap, and based in the Syrian Druze village of Khader. The other was described as an elite Hezbollah force commanded by Jihad Mughniyeh.
But a series of operations attributed to Israel revealed the extent to which these networks were penetrated by and vulnerable to Israeli intelligence.
Kuntar’s men were hit at least three times, including once when a cell was on its way to plant bombs along the border. Mughniyeh, his top operatives and an Iranian general who served as their liaison with the Revolutionary Guards were killed in a strike near Quneitra in January.
Last week’s rocket fire shows that Iran has found a new agent along the border, the Sunni Palestinian organization Islamic Jihad. Despite the gaping Sunni-Shi’ite schism, Islamic Jihad continues to receive money and orders from Shi’ite Iran.
But the new player in this theater is evidently no less transparent than its predecessors to the eyes of Israeli intelligence. Not only were the cell’s members killed in an Israeli retaliation less than a day after the rockets were fired, but defense officials who spoke with Israeli journalists were able to give detailed descriptions of the cell’s chain of command, from the name of the Iranian officer who runs it on behalf of the Quds Force (Saeed Izadi) to the name of the cell’s liaison with Islamic Jihad Secretary General Ramadan Shalah (Akram Ajuri).
Israel’s willingness to reveal sensitive intelligence information in this case, possibly endangering potential sources, attests that weightier considerations are in the balance.
The context, of course, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s battle against U.S. Congressional approval of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the six powers. One of Israel’s main arguments against the deal is that lifting sanctions on Iran will enable it to send billions of dollars to a long list of terrorist and guerrilla organizations that Tehran finances throughout the Middle East.
Two days before the rockets were launched from Syria, Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot visited the IDF’s Northern Command and surveyed the Lebanese border. Netanyahu used this opportunity to quote senior Iranian and Hezollah officials who have vowed to continue fighting Israel.
The rocket launches confirmed what Israeli intelligence already knew: Even though the Assad regime retains control, with difficulty, of only about a tenth of Syria’s border with Israel in the Golan Heights — and even that much only if, alongside the corridor linking Quneitra to Damascus, you include the Druze enclave in Khader — Iran is interested in continuing to conduct small-scale assaults on Israel from this territory. Thus the moment another such attempt occurred, Israel struck hard in response — both at the cell itself and at checkpoints manned by the Syrian army’s 90th Brigade, which controls the access road from Damascus to the border.
It also hastened to exploit the incident to win public relations points in its war against the nuclear deal. The problem is that Washington wasn’t particularly impressed by this argument, which it views as marginal compared to what the Obama administration describes as the great achievement of halting Iran’s nuclear program via a negotiated agreement.
At the moment, it also seems as if Netanyahu is having trouble mobilizing enough senators against the agreement. But that’s already another story.
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