When Nasrallah Promises Revenge, Israel Better Take Him at His Word

Hezbollah's retaliation for Samir Kuntar's death will likely not be of a scope that could spark a new war, but past experience shows group takes questions of honor and image quite seriously in its balance of terror with Israel.

Samir Kuntar and Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, at a stadium in Beirut's southern suburbs, July 16, 2008.
AFP

The Israeli defense establishment waited Monday, almost the entire day, for the speech by Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. Since the aerial attack attributed to Israel, in which the arch-terrorist Samir Kuntar was killed near Damascus, the media affiliated with Hezbollah have published announcements of mourning and sympathy. Nasrallah, who started to speak Monday evening at the scheduled time, made do with a general statement about the Druze terorrist being “one of us,” and made a promise to extract revenge for his death, at a time and place Hezbollah chose.

The Hezbollah leader did not supply further details, and did not define the guidelines for the planned operation. Will it be revenge of a scope that could spark a new war with Israel? It is reasonable to assume not, but it is better to take his statements seriously. In most cases, when Nasrallah threatens Israel, in the end his organization provides a response, even if it is carried out with limited force.

This is the second time the northern front has heated up this year because of a killing attributed to Israel. In the previous round, it happened in January as a result of the slaying of Hezbollah militant Jihad Mughniyeh, an Iranian general and five other militants in a bombing on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. At the time, Nasrallah avoided appearing in public immediately, but his organization threatened to take revenge on Israel – and carried out the threat days later in a missile ambush on the slopes of Har Dov in which an officer and soldier from the Givati Brigade were killed.

AP

Kuntar is not Mughniyeh. Despite the praise heaped at the moment by Hezbollah on its dead hero, it seems Kuntar was not even operating under the umbrella of Hezbollah over the last year. According to various sources, the Shi’ite organization preferred to minimize its contacts with the Druze terrorist a year ago, after the network he headed found it difficult to deliver successful operations on the Golan.

Since then, Kuntar has been operating under the direct sponsorship of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria and Lebanon, through an Iranian officer with the rank of colonel. In Israel, Kuntar has recently been called a “ticking bomb,” based on the plans of the network he heads. If he was killed by Israel, it seems this is the basis for the decision.

At the same time, Hezbollah is not avoiding being identified with Kuntar. His release from an Israeli prison after 29 years, which came in the 2008 swap of prisoners and bodies after the Second Lebanon War, was presented as a big achievement for Hezbollah, and was wildly celebrated in Beirut.

Past experience teaches that Hezbollah takes questions of honor and image quite seriously in its balance of terror with Israel. That is why it is hard to believe that the organization will completely avoid any military response to the attack.It is doubtful if the firing of the rockets at the western Galilee on Sunday evening, less than a day after Kuntar’s death, will end this chapter of revenge for Hezbollah. The firing of the three rockets from a location south of Tyre was announced as the responsibility of a pro-Syrian Palestinian group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, founded by Ahmed Jibril. Kuntar carried out his first terrorist attack, in which a policeman and the father and 4-year-old daughter of the Haran family were murdered in Nahariya in 1979, on behalf of the Palestine Liberation Front, which split off from Jibril’s group. It is possible that the rockets were a kind of sign of solidarity with the slain veteran terrorist. It is still not clear if the rocket attacks was even coordinated with Hezbollah.

The response from Lebanon and Syria depends, it seems, chiefly on Iran. Whether the revenge mission is assigned to Hezbollah or the remains of Kuntar’s organization in the northern Golan Heights, it can be assumed that the final decision will be made in Tehran. First of all, Kuntar was their agent in the last few months of his life, and second, the response depends on the complex fabric of Iranian interests in the region: Iran’s relations with the Western powers based on the nuclear agreement they signed in Vienna; the effort to keep the Assad regime alive in Syria; and the contacts surrounding the election of a new president in Lebanon. All these issues are more important to the Iranians than the attack on Kuntar.