Analysis |

Israel Suspects Hezbollah Will Target Top Israeli Officials

Israel won't publicly admit to Monday's strike and Hezbollah is not making threats, but under the surface, the sides are locked in conflict.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Hezbollah might start targeting senior Israeli officials, Israeli sources say. The reason: Monday’s attack on a weapons convoy in Lebanon that foreign media are linking to Israel.

It seems Israeli defense officials are preparing accordingly. In any case, Hezbollah is not expected to react immediately. Lebanese websites have attributed the attack to the Israel Air Force, though neither Israel nor Hezbollah have commented. So the unofficial rules on the northern front over the past year have been observed this time as well. There’s still room for denial.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped a broad hint: “We do all that is necessary to protect the security of Israeli citizens.” But he didn’t cross the threshold of taking responsibility for the attack.

Hezbollah, meanwhile, denied that there had been an attack at all, even though Lebanese media outlets gave details on its location – two towns in the Bekaa Valley. Reporters even identified the Hezbollah field commander they said was killed in the bombing, which was reportedly targeting an arms convoy.

As of Tuesday evening, there had not yet been reports on what the convoy was carrying from Syria to Hezbollah bases. In the past such deliveries included anti-aircraft missiles, medium-range surface-to-surface missiles and advanced ground-to-sea missiles – the three types of weapons whose transfer to Lebanon Israel says it will block.

The third option seems the least likely. Yakhont anti-ship missiles are stored near the port of Latakia in northern Syria, which has already been bombed several times. Another attempt to smuggle them into Lebanon would more likely have taken place via the coastal road, not the Bekaa Valley further east.

What has apparently worked well in Syria five or six times by the foreign media’s count should also work in Lebanon: Israel, according to the foreign press, intervenes every time it spots an attempt to transfer advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah. As long as there is no official Israeli announcement, the other side prefers to ignore the incident. At most, it makes a veiled threat.

Because the parties are afraid of each other and aren’t seeking a confrontation that could lead to another war, it seems they prefer to let the incident pass. Instead, everyone is going about their business. President Bashar Assad’s regime is continuing its war of survival in Syria, Hezbollah is aiding Assad at Iran’s behest, and Israel hopes not to be dragged into the mutual massacre in Syria that sometimes spills over into Lebanon.

But the instability on the northern border exacts a price from Israel, and the risk it poses is increasing as more and more military operations are attributed to Israel. The Shi’ite-radical axis makes various responses to the incidents it blames on Israel. For example, Assad restrained himself not only after the attacks last year, but also after the destruction of a nuclear facility in the country’s northeast in 2007 and the assassination a year later of the Syrian general who coordinated operations with Iran and Hezbollah.

Iran and Hezbollah, however, acted differently. After Tehran accused Israel of killing several Iranian nuclear scientists, there were attempted strikes on Israeli targets in Thailand, India and Azerbaijan, one of which, in New Delhi two years ago, wounded an Israeli diplomat’s wife.

In July 2012, Hezbollah, probably aided by Iran, killed five Israeli tourists in a suicide bombing on a bus in Bulgaria. That attack was described as revenge for the assassination of Hezbollah’s Imad Mughniyeh in a Damascus car bombing four and a half years earlier.

Hezbollah maintains an open account with Israel over Mughniyeh (it’s doubtful that the death toll in Bulgaria sufficed), the events of the Second Lebanon War, and the assassination of another senior operative, Hassan Lakkis, in Beirut last year – a killing also blamed on Israel. The bombing late Monday is just an addition to the list.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has lots of patience; the revenge is liable to come out of the blue. Israel believes the organization is waiting for the right opportunity, though it isn’t likely to seek it on the Israel-Lebanon border. The response may be a hit on an Israeli target overseas, or on an Israeli considered senior enough to balance the Mughniyeh account. We can assume that in the near term security around Israeli VIPs will be especially tight.

The Syria-Lebanon-Israel border is still quivering nervously. What the Israel Defense Forces terms “the battle between the battles” continues far from the eyes of the Israeli public. Very few operations are publicized, and even those are revealed by the foreign media.

This ambiguity is convenient for Israel; it can operate without having to account for its actions. This probably also reduces the likelihood of retaliation. For now it seems this policy is being managed well and is achieving results without triggering a larger conflict.

But it’s always wise to remember that in these parts most wars break out in an unplanned way, often following tactical, not strategic, incidents. That’s what happened between Israel and Hezbollah in July 2006.

Hezbollah supporters listen to Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah's speech in Beirut, 2010.Credit: AP

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