Samir Kuntar, a notorious Druze warlord who commanded a Hezb’allah unit near the Syrian-Israel border, was killed on Saturday by a targeted missile strike, presumably launched from Israeli jets.
Hezb’allah responded by firing rockets from their stronghold in southern Lebanon that hit northern Israel. The Israelis responded to the rocket attack by directing artillery fire at Hezb’allah positions.
Hezb’allah spiritual leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to retaliate for the assassination of Kuntar.
Amid shouts of “death to Israel,” thousands of Hezbollah supporters on Monday thronged the coffin of a high-profile Lebanese militant who the group says was killed by an Israeli airstrike near the Syrian capital.
The group’s leader pledged to strike back at the Jewish state, but refrained from making any fiery threats during a speech addressing the assassination.
Hezbollah said Samir Kantar, who spent 30 years in an Israeli prison after being convicted of the 1979 murders of an Israeli policeman along with a father and his 4-year-old daughter, was killed Saturday along with eight others in the airstrike on a residential building in Jaramana.
Hezbollah officials had pledged to avenge his killing, sparking fears of escalation in a volatile region.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a televised speech Monday evening, said the group will exact revenge but did not make any specific threats.
Kuntar participated in one of the worst terrorist attacks in Israel’s history and was held in Israeli prison longer than any other terrorist. He was released in 2008 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers.
Hezb’allah has never been so vulnerable, as many of their best fighters are engaged in Syria helping prop up President Assad. If they want another war with Israel, it’s pretty clear that the Israelis will oblige them.
The question now is whether a vicious circle of escalation will develop.
It seems at the moment that neither Hezbollah nor Israel wants to escalate the tensions. But the situation is volatile and could easily get out of hand.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has already said in the past that the group will retaliate to any strike by Israel, and, indeed, following the assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh in a Golan Heights attack attributed to Israel last January, Hezbollah ambushed the IDF in the Mount Dov (Shaba Farms) area, hitting an army vehicle and killing two soldiers.
Hezbollah also has tended to retaliate when attacked in strikes on Lebanese territory attributed to the Israel Air Force against weapons shipments intended for the organization.
However, it also has been known to let alleged Israeli strikes slide without retaliation on more than one occasion.
This time, as well, Hezbollah announced that Israel is responsible for the assassination of Kuntar, but Israel is continuing the thunderous silence it has held since the beginning of the Syrian civil war some five years ago, even when the media ascribe to it air strikes and military activities in Syrian or Lebanese territory.
The belief is that even if Nasrallah and the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Maj.-Gen. Qassem Suleimani (who is responsible for operating Hezbollah), decide that they cannot let the attack go unanswered, it is not in their interest to carry out an attack on the Israel-Lebanon border because Israel would respond with great force.
In the attack on Saturday attributed to the Israel Air Force – in which missiles were fired at a building in Damascus – Farho Sha’alan, Kuntar’s partner in his terrorist enterprise, and additional field commanders also were killed.
For all its bluster, Hezb’allah cannot afford to enter into a major conflict with Israel. The war in 2007 was apparently caused by a miscalculation by Hezb’allah that ambushing an Israeli patrol would not result in serious retaliation. They were wrong and paid dearly for it.
Hezb’allah’s overriding goal is to survive. They are a useful tool for Iran to control Lebanon and as a proxy army in Syria. But another war with Israel could threaten their hold on Lebanon and adversely affect President Assad’s ability to effectively fight the rebellion.
This doesn’t guarantee that the terrorists will now stand down. But another attack by Israel on a terrorist target in Syria could throw all those calculations out the window and lead to war.