Israel’s Return Fire Over the Border Is Like Shooting in the Air

It's doubtful whether Israel's artillery fire is being interpreted by Lebanon the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants.

The Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon at the Galilee panhandle Sunday generated two virtually automatic Israeli responses. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned the perpetrators not to do it again, and the Israel Defense Forces fired heavy artillery at the launching area. It “returned fire on the sources of fire,” as the IDF Spokesman’s Office put it.

Netanyahu even directly blamed Hezbollah for the rockets (indirectly blaming the Lebanese government and Iran), even though early intelligence indicated that Sunni-jihadist groups – Shi’ite Hezbollah’s rivals – were responsible. And it’s doubtful that those groups have any kind of infrastructure that IDF artillery could have damaged.

This isn’t the first time Israel has acted this way in Lebanon. In August an extremist Sunni group fired Katyushas at the Galilee. The air force responded by attacking a command post belonging to the Palestinian organization of Ahmed Jibril – in other words, Israel punished the rocket launchers’ rivals, who operate in a united front with Syria and Hezbollah.

Such responses are not exclusive to Lebanon and adhere to the doctrine of Netanyahu and Ya’alon, who are proud that the government doesn’t let any provocation go unanswered by a military response. Last week, immediately after sniper fire that killed an Israeli on the Gaza border, the prime minister, using unusually sharp words, declared that “those who tested us got hit. Anyone who tests us will get hit.”

The increasing tensions with the Palestinians, and even more so, the three-year upheaval in the Arab world, have worsened the instability on Israel’s borders and have led to a spike in attacks on Israel, from the firing of light weapons to mortar shells and rockets. When there is a clearly identifiable source – for example, when Syrian soldiers fire at Israel over the border on the Golan Heights – it makes sense to return fire directly at the source of the attack.

But there often isn’t a clearly identifiable source for the shooting. The men who fired the rockets Sunday surely disappeared long before the IDF retaliated with artillery at targets that were determined in advance and presumably had no real connection to the rocket launchers.

When Israel’s leaders make threats and IDF cannons fire to no purpose, it’s doubtful whether the message from Jerusalem is being absorbed by Beirut the way Netanyahu wants. The Israeli response this time, as earlier, is akin to firing in the air, lacking both direction and a target.