The son of slain Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh and four operatives were killed on Sunday when an Israeli helicopter fired missiles at his car in the Syrian province of Quneitra, near the border with Israel, Hezbollah official media confirmed.
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Jihad Mughniyeh and the four others were killed when their convoy was hit. His father, who was on the United States’ most wanted list for attacks on Israeli and Western targets, was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. It is widely assumed that Israel planted the car bomb that killed him; Jerusalem has neither confirmed nor denied this.
Western intelligence sources say that a unit headed by Jihad Mughniyeh plotted to attack Israel with rockets, anti-tank missiles and bombs, and planned to send terror operatives into Israeli territory. These attacks were meant to target Israeli troops and civilians in the Golan.
Hezbollah fighters in towns and villages along the border with Israel went on high alert following the strike, said an official from the group. In the Shi’ite-dominated areas of south Lebanon and Beirut, the streets emptied quickly as residents feared an escalation. Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV warned that Israel was “playing with fire that puts the security of the whole Middle East on edge.”
The strike came three days after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said he considered frequent Israeli strikes in Syria as major acts of aggression, and that Syria and its allies had the right to respond. Hezbollah has been fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces in Syria’s nearly four-year-old civil war. Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their long-time foe Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon.
Screenshot from Al-Arabiya purports to show Jihad Mughniyeh with his father Imad (right) and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (left).
A Hezbollah official said Sunday’s dead included another senior Hezbollah commander, Mohammed Issa, and at least one Iranian national with the group.
The air strike targeted two Hezbollah vehicles as fighters were inspecting positions in the Golan Heights, close to the Israeli-controlled frontier. A Syrian activist said Hezbollah was widely rumored to be training pro-Assad militiamen and Syrian government forces near the area.
In October, it was reported that Jihad Mughniyeh was appointed to head Hezbollah’s Golan division. The reports emerged from Syrian opposition groups and were not confirmed by Hezbollah. Mohad Razlan, a senior official in the Syrian National Council, said at the time that the appointment stemmed from Hezbollah’s decision to expand its operations.
Earlier, the Lebanese website El-Nashra reported that Israeli gunships targeted a senior Hezbollah official. According to the report in Al Mayadeen, two Israeli planes circled the Syrian Golan Heights at the same time to collect intelligence.
Lebanon’s MTV network reported that the missiles targeted a rocket-launching cell preparing to fire at Israel. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on its Arabic-language site that the Israeli aircraft bombed a Syrian target.
Israeli officials' comment
The Israel Defense Forces said it would not comment on foreign reports.
However, Maj. Gen. (res.) Yoav Galant, a former head of IDF Southern Command, hinted in an interview with Channel 2 that the timing of the strike was linked to the upcoming Knesset election.
“Based on past incidents, one can deduce that sometimes the timing isn’t entirely unconnected to the election,” he said.
Galant, who is running for Knesset as part of the Kulanu party, further insinuated that the IDF’s assassination of Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari in November 2012 was timed to take place just before an election. Galant said there had been numerous opportunities to carry out the operation long before the election campaign.
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett dismissed Galant’s statements as politically motivated. He called on Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon to order Galant to retract them “before damage is caused.” Bennett had no comment on the reports of the air strike.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, too, refused to address the incident directly.
“Every time something happens in the region, we are blamed,” he told Kol Hai Radio. “I have no interest in addressing this. We have heard [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last week. He denied the presence of Hezbollah operatives in the Golan. If this is true, he has some explaining to do.”
According to a report in Al-Arabiya, Mughniyeh was close to Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.
Earlier Sunday, the Lebanese army released an official statement declaring that four Israel Defense Forces vehicles approached the border and soldiers hurled smoke grenades and tear gas into Lebanese territory. Three Lebanese soldiers suffered smoke inhalation. The army launched a complaint with UNIFIL.
In December, Syrian media reported that an Israeli drone had been brought down in Quneitra province. The report showed footage of what looked like an Israeli Skylark 1 model unmanned aerial vehicle. The IDF said at the time it had no knowledge of a UAV that was downed in Syria.
Also in December, official Syrian media reported that Israeli jets had bombed targets near Damascus International Airport and in the town of Dimas, north of Damascus and near the border with Lebanon. Israel refused to respond to the reports.
According to Syrian media, the Israel Air Force flew at least 10 sorties over the Dimas area and attacked several military targets. Residents of Damascus reported hearing loud explosions on the outskirts of the city.