Iran, Not Hezbollah, Likely Behind Attempted Attack on Syrian Border, Israeli Officials Say

Defense officials say foiled attempt to plant explosives could have been response to a series of airstrikes in Syria attributed to Israel

Amos Harel
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Israeli army forces in tanks at the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, July 3, 2020.
Israeli army forces in tanks at the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, July 3, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel

Israeli defense officials claimed that it is likely that Iran, rather than Hezbollah, was behind the local cell that attempted to plant explosive devices along the border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights Sunday night.

In a statement issued Monday by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, he initially said Hezbollah was responsible for the incident, but a correction that his office sent out moments later omitted any reference to the Lebanese group, and only referred to “terrorists.”

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Iran has used other similar local groups and Shi’ite militia members, who were sent to Syria to aid the Assad regime in the civil war, for similar purposes in the past.

If it were indeed an Iranian-backed unit behind the incident, then it was probably a response to a series of recent airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria attributed to Israel.

Israeli army forces in tanks at the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, July 3, 2020.
Israeli army forces in tanks at the border with Syria in the Golan Heights, July 3, 2020.Credit: גיל אליהו

Iran has tried a number of times to attack Israeli targets in response to Israeli attacks in Syria. Israel thwarted most of the operations, which the former commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, General Qasem Soleimani, oversaw until his death. Soleimani was killed in January when the Americans targeted him in Iraq. His replacement, General Esmail Ghaani, is in charge of the Quds Force operations in the Middle East, but he has been said to be lacking the charisma and creativity associated with Soleimani. These traits made Soleimani a key person at the top of the Iranian regime, far beyond his official position.

The attacks in Syria took place as the continuation of previous operations attributed to Israel on the northern front as part of its so-called "war between the wars" campaign. Their aim is to damage the weapons smuggling chain from Iran through Syria and on to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel has tried to keep a policy of ambiguity concerning most of these attacks. In relatively few cases, because of a combination of specific considerations and political needs, Israel has taken explicit responsibility for the attacks attributed to it in the Arab media.

Hezbollah maintains a regular presence on the Syrian Golan Heights alongside the Iranian operations. The unit, which Hezbollah calls its “Golan File,” relies on local cells from the region. Hezbollah and Iran have increased their operations on the Golan after the Assad regime retook control of the region and got rid of the rebel groups there in the summer of 2018. On March 2, the date of the latest Knesset election, Hezbollah was behind a sniper fire attempt at an Israeli military force on the Golan, but this attack was thwarted, too.

At the same time, the high level of alert in the north continues in light of Hezbollah’s threats to respond to the death of one of the organization’s members in an attack attributed to Israel at the Damascus airport two weeks ago.

Israeli army forces swept the area of the incident on Monday afternoon and found weapons and a bag with a number of explosive devices. Senior army officers met on Monday with the commander of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights and protested the incident.

On Sunday night, the Israeli army said it struck four operatives who attempted to plant explosives along the Syria-Israel border, but did not officially confirm their deaths, however it estimated all four were killed.

Israeli forces identified the squad near an army outpost in the southern Golan Heights that once housed a field hospital for Syrian refugees, according to the army. Troops and aircraft “fired simultaneously toward a cell of four terrorists, a hit was identified,” the army said in a statement. The strike was carried out before the group managed to cross the border fence into Israel, the army confirmed, adding that there were no Israeli casualties in the incident.

In recent weeks, tensions on Israel's northern border have run high since Hezbollah vowed to avenge the death of one of its fighter who was killed an airstrike on pro-Iranian militants in Syria that a war monitoring group has attributed to Israel.

Israel has since boosted its forces on its northern front, where it borders Lebanon and Syria. Last week, Israel said it thwarted an attack by a Hezbollah squad who attempted infiltrating the border from Lebanon.

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