Amid tangle of foes facing Israel from Syria, Kuntar was an obvious target
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Analysis

Amid tangle of foes facing Israel from Syria, Kuntar was an obvious target

The terror chief was working for Iran in orchestrating attacks on Israel from Al-Hader, a key border town where a spectacularly complicated power struggle is playing out

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Samir Kuntar salutes as he arrives to pay his respects at the grave of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, south of Beirut, Lebanon, on July 17, 2008. (AP/Darko Bandic, File)
Samir Kuntar salutes as he arrives to pay his respects at the grave of Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, south of Beirut, Lebanon, on July 17, 2008. (AP/Darko Bandic, File)

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a terror organization headed by Assad loyalist Ahmed Jibril, is said to have claimed responsibility for the three rockets launched at Israel on Sunday from southern Lebanon.

According to the Lebanese El-Nashra News website, the rocket fire came from the PFLP-GC as a response to the assassination of Samir Kuntar, the terror chief who was killed Saturday night in a missile attack on his apartment in the suburbs of Damascus.

A Lebanese Druze, Kuntar was infamous for a brutal 1979 raid from Lebanon in which he helped kidnap an Israeli family from Nahariya, then smashed the head of a four-year-old Israeli girl, Einat Haran, with his rifle butt, killing her. Three other Israelis, including her father, Danny Haran, were also killed in the attack.

Kuntar was 16 at the time of the attack, and a member of the Palestine Liberation Front, whose founder Jibril went on to found the PFLP-GC.

Will three rockets that hit open territory satisfy Hezbollah as a response to Israel’s alleged liquidation of one of the symbols of its battle against the Jewish state? We shall see. Israel is certainly bracing for more, and worse.

In this July 16, 2008, file photo, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, right, gestures as he stands with Samir Kuntar during celebrations in Beirut of Kuntars release from Israeli jail. (AP Photo/File)
In this July 16, 2008, file photo, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, right, gestures as he stands with Samir Kuntar during celebrations in Beirut of Kuntars release from Israeli jail. (AP)

There are quite a few reasons for Hezbollah to respond in a stronger manner. Among these: to bolster its deterrent capability against Israel, and to improve its standing with the Lebanese public in general and especially with the Shiite community, which recognizes Hezbollah’s weakness vis a vis Israel.

Yet Hezbollah could also choose restraint. It well understands that if it were to overreact and cause a high number of casualties on the Israeli side, this would elicit an even more painful Israeli response, and could result in a major escalation. Deeply engaged in the Syrian civil war, sustaining heavy losses in a struggle that will determine its future, Hezbollah does not want to enter a full-scale conflict with Israel at this time.

However, it was not cold logic that led Hezbollah to stage a cross-border attack on July 12, 2006, in which its gunmen escaped with the bodies of two IDF soldiers, sparking a war. Neither, for that matter, did cold logic trigger the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel. When Hezbollah responded to the killing of another of its terror chiefs, Jihad Mughniyah, last January by firing Kornet missiles across the border at an IDF convoy, it was evidently content with the killing of “only” two Israeli soldiers. But had all the missiles it fired hit the Israeli vehicles, the death toll would have been far higher, and Israel and Hezbollah would have been drawn into deeper conflict. Cold logic, it seems, does not always prevail.

Kuntar, the hired hand

Samir Kuntar, of course, was a very different target from Jihad Mughniyah — not least in terms of his significance for Hezbollah.

In the past few months, Kuntar was not operating on behalf of Hezbollah, but rather the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In some respects, indeed, he had retired from Hezbollah and become a hired hand for the Al-Quds force of the IRGC, trying to set up a terrorist infrastructure in the Syrian Golan. The focus was on the Druze town of Al-Hader — the last major Assad regime outpost in this area, and the only barrier to Syrian opposition forces having complete control of the entire area stretching north along the Golan from the Jordanian to the Lebanese border.

Jihad Mughniyeh sits during a memorial service for his father Imad in his hometown of Tair Debba, south Lebanon on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008. (photo credit: AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
Jihad Mughniyeh sits during a memorial service for his father Imad in his hometown of Tair Debba, south Lebanon on Sunday, Feb. 17, 2008. (AP/Tara Todras-Whitehill)

Although he was born a Druze, Kuntar married a Shiite woman after his release from Israeli jail in a 2008 prisoner exchange, which made him an outcast in his own Druze community.

In short, he was not a dear son of Hezbollah, but only a supporting actor. He was not an ideological Hezbollah operative, but a mercenary for Hezbollah and others.

The struggle for Al-Hader

It is not easy to grasp the complexity, highlighted by the killing of Kuntar, that Israel currently faces regarding the Syrian Golan.

The Sunni opposition, partly extreme, partly less so, controls the majority of the territory. Al-Hader, with several of the towns leading up to it, is held by the pro-Iran axis.

Earlier this year, when opposition forces were set to take over the roads leading to Al-Hader, thereby endangering the Druze enclave, Israeli Druze demand that Israel intervene to safeguard their brethren. But those brethren staunchly support Bashar Assad and have enabled him and his allies to set up a terror infrastructure in cooperation with Iran in the enclave. Israel at the time worked through its opposition channels, and somehow the threat to Al-Hader subsided. Since then, the Russians have entered into the equation and given a second wind to regime supporters in the area.

Earlier this week, this correspondent visited the Mount Hermon ski resort in the Golan. The parking lots were almost entirely empty; a few families had come to see the snow that had fallen overnight. Amid the fog at the peak of the Hermon, one could barely make out the houses of Al-Hader across the border just a few kilometers away.

The Syrian Druzxe town of Al-Hader, pictured in 2012 (Ofer 249 / Wikipedia)
The Syrian Druzxe town of Al-Hader, pictured in 2012 (Ofer 249 / Wikipedia)

A few months ago, Israeli soldiers stationed in the area could watch with the naked eye the fighting taking place around the town — rebels coming from the town of Mazraat Beit Jinn, to the northeast, and firing on Al-Hader from a ridge overlooking it, while pro-regime forces attempted to ambush them.

On a clear day, the soldiers can still make out the smuggling roads heading northwest from Mazraat Beit Jinn across the border into Lebanon. Those routes are also sometimes used to evacuate wounded opposition fighters, by so-called “donkey ambulance,” up the tortuous inclines to medical treatment in Israel.

The almost incomprehensible paradox is that Israel is one of the reasons Al-Hader did not fall into the hands of the opposition, and that Al-Hader is well on the way to becoming a center of terrorist activity against Israel. Samir Kuntar was likely killed because of his efforts to bolster this terrorist infrastructure.

An alphabet soup of armed groups

Inside Al-Hader itself today, a wide range of forces are operating. Firstly, there are the “homeland defense committees,” a local Druze force of Assad army veterans who are considered his firmest supporters. They are essentially defending the area on his behalf.

The second force is the Iranians, who have been deepening their involvement in the area since September. They have coopted members of the committees into what they call the “Iranian brigade” and are attempting to assert leadership and control in the area. The third force is the regular Syrian army — still visibly deployed on the “Shouting Hill” across the border facing Israel’s northernmost (Druze) village, Majdal Shams, and at the top of the Syrian Hermon. The fourth force is Hezbollah, which is injecting money and arms to prevent the fall of the village into oppositionists’ hands, which would pave their way into Lebanon. That, rather than Israel, is Hezbollah’s main concern in this area right now.

Here, however, the various terror groups enter the picture, and they are not necessarily loyal to Hezbollah. They include local Druze activists as well as Palestinian mercenaries operating on behalf of Iran, funded by the IRGC, with limited success. In the past two years, the terror groups have placed four explosive devices at the border; only one resulted in casualties on the Israeli side. Still, for Iran, the power vacuum in the area presents an exceptional opportunity to at least try to attack Israeli targets, and to prevent Israel benefiting from the civil war.

Finally, there are Druze religious figures in Al-Hader who do not condone the terror attacks against Israel. They were the ones who understood that Israel had prevented the opposition from taking control of the roads leading to their town; hence their desire to maintain quiet on the front with the “Zionist enemy.”

Al-Hader’s position remains perilous, however. The town of Jubata al-Khashab, to the south, is controlled by the opposition, as is Mazraat Beit Jinn to the northeast. The only way out for Al-Hader residents is via a few isolated roads heading east that act as their lifeline. If the opposition were to take control of them, Al-Hader would fall.

A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)
A Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber lands at the Russian Hmeimin military base in Latakia province, in the northwest of Syria, on December 16, 2015. (Paul Gypteau/AFP)

With the Russians joining the fight in Syria, however, the momentum of the conflict in Syria generally, and in this area particularly, has changed. Assad’s army is more determined and more daring. In the past, the opposition onslaught here would have ended with a withdrawal of regime forces, without much of a fight. Now, even if the opposition were to overrun Al-Hader, the army would try to reconquer it.

Thus, Israel finds itself confronted with a multitude of international players and innumerable terrorist organizations in the Golan sector, often fighting each other.

In the south, supporters of the Al-Nusra Front recently managed to deal a heavy blow to the senior leadership of the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, which has lately pledged allegiance to Islamic State. In the center you have an Al-Nusra presence, along with some relatively moderate rebel groups. And then, in the north, in the town of Al-Hader, right under Mount Hermon, you have supporters of Iran and Hezbollah whose main focus is fighting against all those aforementioned Sunni opposition groups, but who succumb to the urge to target Israel, too, now and again.

In that spectacularly complex quagmire, targeting Samir Kuntar, a notorious terror chief with Israeli blood on his hands who was working to carry out further attacks, may have been one of the simpler decisions.

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