Analysis

Israel's Growing Tensions With Syria, Lebanon and Hamas Leave Little Room for Maneuvering

Recent clash between Israel and Syria follows Assad's new successes ■ Increasing cooperation between Hezbollah and Lebanese army create new threats for Israel.

A handout picture released by the Hezbollah press office on May 13, 2015, shows a Hezbollah fighter aiming his weapon on the Syrian side of the Qalamun hills close to the Lebanese borders.
HO / HEZBOLLAH PRESS OFFICE / AF

With the political system in a frenzy over the police investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the dispute over the public broadcasting corporation and the possible advancing of elections, Israel is facing two potential security imbroglios, one with Syria and Lebanon and the second with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In both cases, it seems as if Israel is reaching the limits of its maneuvering room, which increases the risk of a confrontation.

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The increasing tension in the north began before dawn Friday with an attack in Syria that went somewhat awry. Israel, in an unusual move, was forced to admit that it had attacked military targets – i.e., a weapons convoy headed for Hezbollah in Lebanon – after an anti-aircraft missile fired by the Syrian Army missed hitting the Israeli Air Force planes but entered Israeli airspace, and was successfully intercepted by an Arrow missile in the Jordan Valley region.

According to Arabic media and pretty clear hints from the Israeli leadership, the IAF has been attacking weapons convoys and depots in Syria for more than five years. But the high profile of this latest incident forced Israel to drop the veil of ambiguity it managed to maintain after the previous attacks. It also needed to pass an indirect calming message to the Jordanian public, because part of the interceptor fell in Jordanian territory, and without a public Israeli explanation King Abdullah II of Jordan could have been embarrassed by his seeming restraint in response to Israeli “aggression.”

On Sunday morning Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned that the next time the air force will destroy any antiaircraft missile battery that fired on Israel’s aircraft. Then Sunday afternoon, Syria reported the assassination of a militiaman affiliated with the regime on the Golan Heights, an operation that Arab media attributed to Israel.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah with Michel Aoun in 2006. Aoun, now Lebanon's president, has said Hezbollah's arms are part of his country's defense against Israel.
AP

At the same time, Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot, at the change of command ceremony in Safed for the head of Northern Command, said, “Hezbollah is violating UN resolutions and is preparing for war.” He added that “in a future war there will be a clear address – the Lebanese government.”

Behind these incidents and declarations lies one central development: the success of Syrian President Bashar Assad to totally turn things around in his country’s civil war and the confidence that Russia’s military intervention provides Assad’s camp, which also reflects onto Hezbollah. It isn’t just Aleppo; in recent days the Assad regime has completed its conquest of the region of Homs, where the rebels had asserted control, reaching an agreement under which the rebels withdrew from one of Syria’s largest cities.

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Meanwhile, the fact that the Shi’ite axis has the upper hand in Syria strengthens Hezbollah’s domestic position and its influence over the Lebanese government in Beirut. But the growing cooperation between the terror group and the Lebanese Army has led Israel to issue strong warnings to the Lebanese government.

Israel now has to weigh its steps carefully because Russia is in the neighborhood. Over the weekend the Israeli ambassador to Russia was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry for the first time to explain Friday's attack. Russia is trying to come to a permanent cease-fire in Syria, an effort that’s meeting with apathy and hesitancy from the U.S. administration. Netanyahu, who until now has led a responsible policy with regard to the north, has on several occasions this past month warned against the Iranians establishing a foothold in Syria, whether through the port that Tehran is trying to lease near Latakia, or through the entry of Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah to forward positions on the Syrian border of the Golan Heights.

A rocket fired by Palestinian militants at southern Israel is seen as it is launched from the outskirts of Gaza City, Thursday, Jan. 8, 2009.
AP

Meanwhile, in the south, sporadic rocket fire from Gaza to the Negev continues; there was were rockets fired last Wednesday and Saturday. Yesterday there were warning sirens in the Gaza border communities that turned out to be false alarms – which have become pretty common recently, indicating either the sensitivity of the military apparatus or a rise in the frequency of attempted fire by Hamas.

In recent weeks the Israeli responses to these rocket launches have been pretty tame. There’s been lots of tough rhetoric, but the military actions have generally been limited to hitting Hamas positions along the Gaza-Israel border, ending them as soon as possible after the rocket is fired. This indicates that for now the government doesn’t want to get dragged into a broader confrontation for no reason, even as the IDF continues to prepare for the violence if it does break out. Still, almost every senior Israeli official who is asked raises the possibility that the Gaza border will heat up during the summer. These tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies.

Things aren’t exactly calm in the West Bank, either. Last week three Palestinians were killed by IDF fire. In Ramallah an armed wanted man was killed; in the Hebron area a Palestinian teenager was shot dead in an incident when stones and firebombs were thrown at troops, and at the Gush Etzion junction a young Palestinian woman whom the IDF said tried to ram into soldiers was killed.

One gets the impression that the Palestinians in the West Bank are getting more restless. Some of this restlessness is being directed at the Palestinian Authority, whose security apparatuses are being again portrayed as collaborating with Israel. The prime minister, who is currently on an official visit to China, will have to address all these developments.