Nicholas Blanford/Hezbollah to sustain calculated retaliation against Israel

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Hezbollah to sustain calculated retaliation against Israel
Nicholas Blanford/The Daily Star/Jan. 30, 2015

BEIRUT: The most serious escalation between Hezbollah and Israel since the end of the 2006 war appears to have tailed off into an uneasy calm, leaving both sides mulling the lessons of the past 11 days.

After intense speculation as to the manner of Hezbollah’s retaliation for the Jan. 18 airstrike near Qunaitra on the Golan that killed an Iranian general and six party personnel, including Jihad Mughniyeh, and Mohammad Issa, a senior field commander, Hezbollah opted for a “Shebaa Farms-plus” operation to exact revenge and attempt to restore its deterrence.

Hezbollah fired six Russian Kornet anti-tank missiles at a convoy of five Israeli military vehicles that was following the border road at the foot of the Shebaa Farms hills around 2.5 kilometers east of Ghajar, the village bisected by the Blue Line.

Two of the missiles struck their targets – two soft-skinned pickup trucks – one missile apparently went astray and hit a house in Ghajar and the other three presumably missed.

The attack carried more heft than the routine pre-2006 Shebaa Farms operations consisting of mortar shelling of Israeli outposts or a roadside bomb attack against a patrol. In the grim balance sheet of score-settling, it was important for Hezbollah to inflict fatalities among the Israeli troops in revenge for the victims of the Qunaitra airstrike.

The toll of two dead Israeli soldiers and seven wounded should ensure that Hezbollah does not feel compelled to stage another attack to fulfill its reprisal.

The last time that Hezbollah employed anti-tank missiles to ambush an Israeli army convoy in the Shebaa Farms was in April 2001, before the Israelis built new supply roads hidden from the line-of-sight wire-guided Sagger systems then used by Hezbollah.

Therefore, the choice of the ambush site carried some significance. Unlike the Shebaa Farms with its steep wooded valleys, the target of the ambush was located on the flat plain at the foot of the occupied mountainside, a good environment for Hezbollah’s Kornet missiles which have a range of about 5 km.

Furthermore, attacks in the heart of the Shebaa Farms (such as the Oct. 7 roadside bomb ambush near the Israeli Rwaisat al-Alam outpost) cannot be seen from the Lebanese side of the Blue Line. But Wednesday’s missile ambush was in full view of anyone east of Khiam.

Hezbollah is a master of propaganda and psychological warfare and the photographs and video footage of burning vehicles and wounded Israeli soldiers being treated on the roadside, which were splashed across the media of Lebanon, Israel and beyond, were almost as important for Hezbollah as the casualties they inflicted in the attack itself.

In the game of deterrence and one-upmanship played by Hezbollah and Israel, perception is often more important than the reality. And the perception from Wednesday’s action was that Hezbollah was undaunted by Israeli threats, picked up Israel’s gauntlet and flung it back.

The Israeli retaliation was limited to a relatively heavy bombardment of around 130 artillery and mortar rounds against areas facing the Shebaa Farms, one of which killed a Spanish UNIFIL peacekeeper.

Such a response is in keeping with past reactions to Hezbollah’s Shebaa Farms operations. That Israel did not escalate its response to, say, attacking Hezbollah targets in the Bekaa Valley suggests that it surmised there was little to gain from escalating the situation further.

Israel’s decision of forbearance may well have been aided by the signals sent by Hezbollah to diplomats and apparently the UNIFIL commander that it was uninterested in further fighting.

There are, perhaps, two pressing questions that arise from this 10-day drama. The first is that, given the outcome, why did Israel carry out the assassination of the Hezbollah cadres in the Golan in the first place?

The rationales that have leaked from Israel (which officially has not claimed responsibility) remain contradictory or unconvincing. The main stated reason was that Mughniyeh and his companions were preparing the infrastructure to mount resistance operations into the Israeli-occupied side of the Golan.

It is clear from a series of actual and attempted attacks in the Golan almost a year ago in response to an Israeli airstrike near Janta in the Bekaa that the strategic plateau has become a locus of deniable operations for Hezbollah, a safer option of signaling displeasure toward Israel than doing so from Lebanese soil.

Furthermore, Hezbollah perhaps has a motive for needling the Israelis from time to time in the Golan to “punish” Israel for its alleged covert cooperation with some Syrian rebel forces in the area.

Syrian rebels have seized ground in recent months in the Deraa and Qunaitra provinces. That reason alone is why it makes little sense for Hezbollah to be planning a whole new resistance campaign at a time when it and the Syrian army are struggling to prevent further territorial losses.

Even if the Israeli claims are true, killing Mughniyeh and the others offers no guarantee that Hezbollah would halt its resistance plans for the Golan. But it did guarantee that Hezbollah would exact revenge for the airstrike which is what happened Wednesday, and two Israeli soldiers are dead and the party’s deterrence has been restored – for now.

The second question is whether this episode will mark an end to the general calm that has existed along the Blue Line (and the Golan for that matter) since 2006 or whether it will in fact reinforce it.

Since the end of the 2006 war, there have only been six incidents of violence between Hezbollah and Israel across the Blue Line: the shooting of an Israeli colonel in Adaisseh in August 2010, the ambush against Israeli troops that crossed the border near Labboune in August 2013, Israel’s airstrike against a Hezbollah facility in Janta in February last year and three attacks against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area, including Wednesday’s operation.

Significantly, four of those incidents have occurred within the past 12 months. Additionally, they do not include several small-scale anti-Israeli attacks from the Golan since December 2013, some of which were likely the work of Hezbollah or its allies.

Despite the uptick in recent months of hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel, the events of the past 10 days left both sides staring into the abyss of all-out war, one which they have been preparing for since 2006 but which neither currently seeks.

Still, despite that sobering view from the brink, further occasional anonymous anti-Israel attacks in the Golan are likely. And Wednesday’s events – as well as those of the past year – demonstrate that Hezbollah will continue to retaliate to any overt Israeli action, albeit in a carefully calibrated manner to avoid broader hostilities.