Is Hezbollah Out for Blood, or Will Incident on Israel Border Suffice?

Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly said his organization will avenge the death of Samir Kuntar, so his followers will probably not see Monday’s casualty-free explosion on the Israel-Lebanon border as a satisfactory response.

IDF forces near the Lebanon border, January 4, 2016.
Gil Eliahu

Prudent behavior by Israel Defense Forces troops on the Lebanese border seemingly thwarted a Hezbollah attack near Har Dov Monday afternoon. The question now is whether Hezbollah, which claimed responsibility for the bombing, will be satisfied with an explosion that caused no casualties, or whether it will seek further vengeance against Israel.

A Hezbollah response has been expected ever since Samir Kuntar – a Lebanese Druze terrorist affiliated with the organization – was assassinated near Damascus on December 20. Not only did Hezbollah publicly blame Israel (which hasn’t officially claimed responsibility for the airstrike that killed Kuntar), but its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has said at least three times that the organization will avenge his death. Nevertheless, Hezbollah opted to respond on Monday in a theater where no Israeli civilians live, and where any escalation could therefore be contained.

Over the past few days, the IDF has fired artillery shells into Lebanese territory north of Har Dov several times, either as a deterrent or to prevent the possibility of infiltrations into Israel. The bomb that went off Monday hit a well-armored force whose task was to search for explosives planted along the border.

What Hezbollah hasn’t said is whether that bomb was merely the first in a series of planned actions. To some extent, Nasrallah’s statements have boxed his organization in: By creating high expectations for revenge, they’ve made it hard for him to justify settling for a retaliation that claimed no casualties. Even so, it’s possible to hope he won’t be inflamed by his own rhetoric and will now restrain his operatives before the situation escalates further.

The IDF has a different problem. It wants to avoid mistakes that would result in it suffering casualties along the northern border, but it is hard to maintain a high level of alertness in all units over time. The longer the alert lasts, the more weak spots will develop that Hezbollah could try to exploit.

Over the past two weeks, Israel has sent warnings to Hezbollah via several diplomatic channels, but the organization apparently hasn’t responded.

Because the Har Dov incident ended with no casualties, it didn’t oust the manhunt for Nashat Melhem, the alleged perpetrator of Friday’s deadly shooting attack in Tel Aviv, from the headlines. But although that hunt is unquestionably important, and the fact that Melhem remains at large is worrying many parents in Tel Aviv, what’s happening on the Lebanese border is no less important since it has the potential for complications that could affect all Israelis.

As far as the Arab world is concerned, both the Tel Aviv attack and tensions on the northern border are of marginal importance compared to the really big story – the severing of diplomatic relations between the Sunni Gulf states and Shi’ite Iran following Saudi Arabia’s execution of radical Shi’ite preacher Nimr al-Nimr on Saturday and the subsequent attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran.

The Saudi-Iranian rift merely intensifies the broader Sunni-Shi’ite schism that characterizes most of the wars that have erupted in the Middle East since the Arab Spring. If there were ever any shred of a chance for a diplomatic solution, even a temporary one, to the Syrian civil war, it has now been further reduced by the latest Saudi-Iranian spat.

If Nasrallah is right that Israel killed Kuntar, the broader situation in the Middle East presumably formed part of Jerusalem’s calculations, alongside the stated need to break up the Druze terrorist cell Kuntar headed in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights (which Israel defined as a ticking bomb), and the unstated desire to show the Israeli public some kind of achievement in the war on terror at a time when the government has been unable to halt a spate of Palestinian attacks that have continued for three months now.

Whoever approved the assassination apparently assumed both that Nasrallah feels no deep attachment to the Druze murderer, since his organization curtailed its ties with him about a year ago, and that Hezbollah is too busy with Syria’s civil war to risk opening a new front against Israel. Nasrallah’s frequent threats since the assassination may indicate that this was a misreading of his state of mind. But that question will be answered only down the road, based on Hezbollah’s next moves.

The desire to free Kuntar from his life sentence in Israel, imposed for a deadly 1979 terror attack in northern Israel, was Hezbollah’s stated pretext for the cross-border kidnaping that sparked the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Nonetheless, Israel isn’t currently expecting his death to lead to the outbreak of a third Lebanon war in 2016.