A Hezbollah operative who was killed in Syria by an airstrike two days ago was part of a network operated by the Shi'ite terror group which is dubbed "The Golan File" and whose purpose is to establish military infrastructure along the border with Israel. Israel's defense establishment tracked the network for a long time and studied it, focusing in particular on the central entities leading it.
Syrian media reported that Israel assassinated the operative, who has been identified as Mashhour Zidan.
Zidan, a resident of the Golan Heights Druze village of Hader, was responsible for recruiting members from villages on the Syrian side of the border. The members he recruited were expected to amass military intelligence on Israel Defense Forces activity in the area and stockpile explosives, firearms, machine guns and anti-tank missiles in their homes in preparation for a future military confrontation with Israel.
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The Arab news agency Arabi Al-Yom reported that Zidan was driving his car in the Syrian Golan Heights when a missile struck the vehicle, killing him on the spot. The report also said that a 3-year-old girl who was standing nearby also died in the strike. A group of Hezbollah operatives then arrived at the site to identify the body, according to a report by Lebanese news site Al-Modon.
Syrian opposition activists believe that an Israeli drone carried out the strike that killed Zidan. Israel did not respond to the reports, and the Israeli military issued a statement saying that it "does not comment on foreign reports."
Reports alleged that Zidan visited Lebanon several times, using false identities. Four months ago, near the time that the IDF uncovered the Golan File network, Zidan disappeared and was rumored to have been killed in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta. Reports say that during this time he was summoned to Lebanon before returning again to Syria under a different identity.
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On Wednesday morning, two days after Zidan's death, Syrian state media said Israel struck a Syrian army base in Tel Al-Hara in the Golan Heights, as well as other targets in Quneitra and the village of Sasa southeast of Damascus. Western intelligence sources previously said Iranian-backed militias are based in Tel Al-Hara. According to Syrian reports, at least two Syrian soldiers were wounded and Syrian air defense responded to the strike.
On Saturday, the Daily Beast ran an interview with a number of Hezbollah commanders who claimed the organization was redeploying its forces near the border with Israel in Lebanon and Syria.
Before the civil war in Syria, the Assad regime had constrained Hezbollah's activity in the country. “Our wish before the war in Syria was to go and open a front in the Golan but [the Syrian Government] set a red line,” one commander told the Daily Beast. “Now there are no red lines."
In March, the IDF announced that it uncovered the Golan File network in Syria. As fighting dwindled in the country and many of Hezbollah's fighters returned to Lebanon, the organization decided, along with Iran, to establish a mercenary militia in which fighters receive monthly stipends to gather intelligence and stow weapons in the Golan Heights. Orders by Hezbollah's top brass reportedly make their way to operatives in the Golan Heights via special staff in Damascus.
The head of the Golan File is Abu Hussein Sajid, a Beirut-based operative familiar to Israeli intelligence sources. Sajid joined Hezbollah in 1983 and served in operational roles while Israeli forces were deployed in the security zone in southern Lebanon. Last summer Sajid was sent to Syria to establish the network after his predecessor, Jihad Mughniyeh, was killed by an Israeli airstrike in January 2015, according to Syrian news sources. In December 2015, Israel allegedly killed another Hezbollah leader, Samir Kuntar, under similar circumstances.
Several days after the IDF announced that it uncovered the Golan File, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed a message to Iran and Hezbollah: "We know what you're doing and we know where you're doing it. This is the tip of the iceberg. Israel will not let you establish a military network in Syria." He added that "the founding of terrorist infrastructure is part of Iranian activity against Israel. We will continue to operate in overt and covert ways to thwart your schemes."
In 2018, commander of the IDF division responsible for the front with Syria, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, said, "The Syrian army has conquered the entirety of southern Syria and is back at its posts, accompanied by Hezbollah fighters. The IDF will not allow Hezbollah entrenchment near the border and will forcefully act to stave off this terrorist organization from the Golan Heights front."
Hezbollah has not issued a statement about Zidan's death, nor did it state whether it holds Israel accountable for his death or whether it intends to retaliate.
Foreign news reports have accused Israel of killing Hezbollah operatives in the past, but they sometimes turned out to be wrong. For instance, foreign news outlets accused Israel when Mustafa Bader al-Din, among the leaders of Hezbollah's military wing, was killed by a bomb near the Damascus International Airport in 2016.
In Israel, however, the assessment was that al-Din was killed because of an internal conflict within Hezbollah or account-settling within the Shi'ite camp. About 24 hours after his killing, Hezbollah made a statement casting the responsibility on rebel Sunni organizations in Syria.