Hezbollah will retaliate against Israel, which it holds responsible for Wednesday morning’s assassination of Hassan al-Laqis, a top operative in the organization, a Lebanese newspaper reported Thursday.
The editor of the Al-Akhbar daily, Ibrahim al-Amin, who is said to be close the Hezbollah leadership, blamed Israel for the hit in an editorial, insinuating that it was Israel’s response to the recent nuclear deal between Iran and the West.
Amin argued that the lack of a Syrian response to alleged Israeli strikes on its territory led Jerusalem to believe it could get away with the assassination.
However, experts interviewed by the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star were split over whether Hezbollah would strike at Israel, with one arguing that it would not be in the organization’s interest to retaliate now.
Both Hezbollah and its sponsor states, Iran and Syria, accused Israel of the slaying.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denied Israeli involvement, saying Israel “has nothing to do with this incident.”
A previously unknown group, the “Free Sunni Brigades in Baalbek,” claimed responsibility for the attack in a Twitter message.
On Wednesday afternoon, Col. (res) Ronen Cohen, a former director of the terror desk in the Military Intelligence Directorate, said a retaliatory attack from Hezbollah was quite possible, in particular now that there was less pressure on its backer Iran following the nuclear agreement reached in Geneva last month.
“The security establishment fully understands the change and, therefore, as opposed to recent years — during which the assessment was that the response will not be on the Israeli-Lebanese border — now they will allow themselves to respond based on the understanding that the Iranian issue is off the table,” he told Army Radio. That response, he noted, could also be an attack on Israeli or Jewish interests abroad.
Another Lebanese daily, Al-Safir, reported that Laqis traveled without security, regularly using taxis.
Laqis held a “key role” in the Lebanese terror organization’s drone aircraft program and was pivotal in other technological aspects of its ongoing fight against Israel, a Lebanese report confirmed on Wednesday.
Sources close to Hezbollah told the Daily Star that Laqis was responsible for smuggling weapons into the Gaza Strip and Egypt in addition to his work in technology and research. He was at one point one of the main commanders of Hezbollah’s rocket division, which fired hundreds of missiles at Israel.
Israeli intelligence analyst Ronen Solomon told The Times of Israel that Laqis was in charge of procuring Iranian armaments for Hezbollah, including high-tech communications equipment, missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Laqis was shot dead as he sat in his SUV in the parking lot in front of his apartment building in the Hadath neighborhood, some three kilometers (two miles) southwest of Beirut. A statement released by Hezbollah said Laqis was killed as he was coming home from work.
According to a report, the assassins used a silenced 9-millimeter pistol and shot Laqis five times in the head and neck. There were conflicting reports as to whether two or three people were involved in the attack. Laqis was rushed to a nearby hospital but died of his wounds, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Hezbollah claimed the mode of operation indicated that Israel was behind the assassination. ”Israel is automatically held completely responsible for this heinous crime,” the organization said in a statement, warning that Israel would “bear full responsibility and all consequences” for the hit.
Yifa Yaakov and Mitch Ginsburg contributed to this report.