Israeli defense officials attribute the firing of three rockets at Kiryat Shmona on Wednesday to one of the Palestinian organizations operating in southern Lebanon. It sounds like a logical explanation: Different Palestinian factions were responsible for rocket fire in previous years too. The four previous barrages from Lebanon this year, three of which came during the operation in the Gaza Strip in May, were also attributed to these same groups, which intelligence officials usually do not name and just mention in general terms.
But the more important question is what Hezbollah, the true ruler in southern Lebanon, knew in advance about the planned launches. Rockets have been fired at Israel from southern Lebanon in the past, too, in the years after the Second Lebanon War in 2006, though with much less frequency. The accepted argument is that such things do not happen in the area without the agreement, even if it’s just a wink, of Hezbollah. Another possibility is that the frequent rocket fire reflects the growing chaos in Lebanon, in light of the deterioration of the economic and political situation there.
These two possible explanations are not encouraging as far as Israel is concerned. If Hezbollah allowed the rocket fire, this means that the Lebanese group and its Iranian patrons are no longer particularly deterred by the Israeli response. If the group did not allow the rocket fire – and this is what Israel Defense Forces officials are leaning toward at the moment – then it means that armed militants are moving around near the border and doing whatever they want, and no one is restraining them. This is a recipe for a violent escalation on a sensitive and unstable front.
We must also pay attention to two other matters, which could very well be a coincidence – but it is also possible that they have symbolic importance. First, this is the first firing at Kiryat Shmona, the largest city in the Galilee Panhandle, after many years. Whoever chose to do so, if they are aware of the history of the Katyusha rocket fire on Kiryat Shmona from the end of the 1960s and after, has found themselves a relatively large and resonating target.
Second, Wednesday is the first anniversary of huge explosion in the port of Beirut, which killed over 200 people – and Lebanon is still having a hard time recovering from the enormous destruction it caused. The choice of the timing may also be related to the attempt to divert the internal agenda inside Lebanon from what is happening in Beirut to the situation along the southern border.
Many Lebanese blame the politicians from all ethnic groups and parties both for the negligence that enabled the outrageous quantities of explosive materials to be held in the port, and for placing obstacles in the path of the investigation – which as of now has not reached those responsible for the disaster. In the background is the most severe crisis the country has seen since the civil war in the 1970s. Lebanese citizens are finding it hard to provide their own basic needs, such as food, medicine and electricity – and the external aid still hasn’t arrived.
The rocket fire from Lebanon, in the second incident of its kind within two weeks, also came at a time of increased tensions in the Persian Gulf. On Friday, an Iranian suicide drone hit a ship with indirect Israeli ownership near Oman’s coast. Two members of the crew, a Romanian citizen and a British citizen, were killed.
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On Wednesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz accused two senior commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards air force of direct responsibility for the attack. On Monday, a strange incident occurred near the coast of the United Arab Emirates. A number of ships were delayed in the gulf after one of them appeared to hit a mine at sea. Later, one of the ships reported that armed Iranians had come aboard and hijacked it. The ship was released on Wednesday morning under circumstances that are not yet completely clear.
It is tempting to connect all these incidents together: Iran is stepping up its actions against Israel and the West and is allowing Hezbollah, which is operating the Palestinians on its behalf, to initiate similar provocations on the Israeli-Lebanese border. But the truth is that Israeli intelligence still does not have a convincing enough explanation as to the connection between the events in the Gulf and in Lebanon. What is clear is that the regional tensions have increased recently with the inauguration of the new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi this week and the possibility of renewing the nuclear talks between Iran and the West toward the end of the month in Vienna.
The rocket fire on Wednesday – two rockets landed in an open area near Kiryat Shmona and one landed inside Lebanon – has received a relatively low-key Israeli response so far. The IDF may have fired artillery barrages, three separate ones, into southern Lebanon, but they were aimed at open areas and did not cause any casualties or damage.
The new government in Israel assumes that its neighbors, as well as the Iranians, are testing its responses and hope to see how this government will meet the challenges. Such a burden of expectations could still encourage a harsher military response, in the short term or later. But we should remember the accumulated experience from the period of escalation in Lebanon – and even more so from the Gaza Strip: A large military operation, and even a war, can occur as a result of the gradual accumulation of incidents, without any of the parties involved intending for it to happen at all.