Israel and Hezbollah's New Battle Ground: The Golan Heights

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A tank sits in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights near the border with Syria, Tues., Jan. 27, 2015.Credit: AP

The Katyusha rockets that were fired at the Golan Heights from Syria on Tuesday apparently weren’t stray fire from a battle between the Assad regime and its opponents, but rather were launched deliberately, Israeli defense officials believe.

An Iron Dome defense system in the Golan Heights, January 20, 2015.Credit: AFP

According to defense establishment assessments, the rockets were a sign that Hezbollah, along with Iran and Syria, hasn’t forgotten the January 18 assassination of an Iranian general and six Hezbollah operatives, which the organization attributes to Israel.

Nor, it seems, will those rockets be the end of the story. They were a response that could be carried out relatively quickly and easily, but we ought to presume that Hezbollah and Iran are also planning a more ambitious retaliation, which will take longer to prepare. Meanwhile, they’re maintaining the Golan Heights as an unstable, active front. The fact that the Mount Hermon ski resort was evacuated after Tuesday’s rocket attack was an ancillary benefit from their standpoint. They understand quite well that a single rocket every few days would be enough to paralyze the ski season.

Israel’s response was measured: a few artillery shells fired at the Syrian position from which the rockets were launched. This signaled to Hezbollah and Iran that Israel has a clear policy. A mass-casualty attack, or the opening of a new front, will elicit a severe response. But if its enemies don’t demonstratively cross its red lines, Israel will do everything it can to contain the escalation and prevent a war.

A balancing act

Earlier this week, before the Katyusha fire, a Lebanese parliamentarian representing Hezbollah was asked on the TV station Al Manar about Hezbollah’s delay in responding to the January 18 strike. The parliamentarian replied that the organization is still formulating an appropriate response together with Syria and Iran. The response, he explained, must not be too small – like, for instance, planting bombs along the border fence where Israeli soldiers patrol – but that it also must not lead to war with Israel. Hezbollah, he said, must refrain from rash moves.

Assuming it was not a deliberate deception, but were mainly justification in the face of expectations in the Arab world, what the parliamentarian said matches the assessments of Israeli intelligence. The assassination was a blow too big for Hezbollah and Iran to overlook, but their desire to restore the balance of deterrence with Israel in the north must be weighed against other concerns on other fronts.

For Iran, the highest priorities are the negotiations with the United States and other world powers over its nuclear program, as well as preserving the Assad regime’s power in Syria. And in Lebanon this weekend, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army were busy with a joint battle against radical Sunni organizations in the Bekaa Valley. All these developments are considerations that act as restraints on the magnitude and timing of their response.

Nevertheless, the Israel Defense Forces are maintaining an exceptionally high alert level along the northern border, as well as the air force and Military Intelligence, for fear that things will spin out of control. The preparations have been relatively high-profile. Both the defense minister and the chief of staff independently toured Northern Command on Friday, invited television crews to come along and used them to send threatening messages to Hezbollah.

The Golan is now the main Israel-Hezbollah front. Hezbollah began launching attacks there about a year ago (in response to the bombing of an arms convoy along the Syrian-Lebanese border that it attributed to Israel). Last week’s assassination was attributed to Israel, and now there has been a response. In the meantime, the Lebanese border remains quiet.

Why the Golan has become a front may be gleaned from two foreign media reports in recent months. In October, the Lebanese paper Al-Akhbar claimed that Israel had forged an alliance with extremist Sunni organizations and was thereby intervening in Syria’s civil war on the rebels’ side. The paper claimed that Israel’s goal was twofold: undermining the Assad regime and obtaining capabilities for weakening Hezbollah at the point where Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet.

Last week, Lebanese researcher Tony Badran, who is now affiliated with a Washington think tank, published a contrary theory on the Business Insider website. Badran said that Israel had discerned unusual activity on the Golan by Iran and Hezbollah, who were seeking to exploit the Syrian chaos to open a new front for attacks on Israel. Last week’s assassination, he argued, was an Israeli message aimed at stopping that plan in its tracks.

For now, however, it seems that Hezbollah is interested in continuing its clash with Israel along the Syrian border, despite the losses it has suffered. 

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