As has been the case following previous alleged Israeli airstrikes, Hezbollah and its chief Hassan Nasrallah are now faced with a thorny dilemma: to retaliate or not to retaliate, or perhaps more accurately, how to retaliate, since the response is sure to come.
The assassination of Samir Kuntar, who became a member of Hezbollah after his release from Israeli prison in 2008, is another in a series of blows to the Shiite Lebanese militia, on both an operational and a symbolic level.
On the operational level, the assassination is further evidence — after the assassination of Jihad Mughniyeh in January and the killing of Hassan al-Laqis in December 2013 — of the ease with which intelligence services can infiltrate the organization.
Symbolically, the raid was a blow to the terror organization’s morale, as it underlines its weakness and compromises its image amid its ongoing involvement in the war in Syria.
Kuntar, who was Druze, is credited with having salvaged Hezbollah’s terror network on the Syrian Golan Heights, and at one time was working separately for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
He was a marked man from the moment he was released from Israeli prison in 2008, and during the past seven years, was continually preoccupied with planning attacks against the Jewish state.
In recent months, Kuntar was working under the guidance of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and had slightly distanced himself from Hezbollah. In this sense, one could say that Kuntar died as a mercenary for Iran rather than a model Hezbollah fighter. Farhan al-Shaalan, a second commander listed among the dead in the strike, was also enlisted by the Iranians rather than Hezbollah.
Still, because Kuntar was significant to Hezbollah, which had won his release from prison, a retaliation against Israel for the strike is likely to come. He’s identified with the Shiite group despite being Druze, and had been spotted at various events organized by Hezbollah.
In January, after the assassination of Mughniyeh, considered the foremost symbol of the organization, Hezbollah was satisfied with a retaliation that included a volley of rockets toward an IDF convoy that killed Staff Sgt. Dor Chaim Nini and the company commander, Maj. Yohai Kalangel. The strike included some seven rockets and could have ended with far more tragic results. In the end, Hezbollah, like Israel, stopped at that point and did not allow a wider security escalation.
While it can be assumed that Hezbollah will attempt to retaliate now as well, in light of its situation on the Syrian front — where one-third of its fighters have been killed or injured — it is not expected to seek a broader escalation. The Times of Israel reported last week that between 1,300 and 1,500 of its fighters have been killed in combat in Syria, and some 5,000 injured.
In the past few months, Hezbollah has launched a massive draft of youths 17 and older to make up for its losses. However, the recruits are not at the same level as the trained and sophisticated fighters that filled its ranks just a few years ago. The thousands of young recruits still require months of training, and Hezbollah is thus unlikely for now to seek out war with Israel.
Hezbollah has also found itself in a complex political position in Lebanon with its attempts to push a Maronite Christian presidential candidate. Thus far these attempts have failed, and the political paralysis in Lebanon surrounding the president is ongoing.
Meanwhile, Israel has been careful not to claim the strike, although Hezbollah has already directly accused the IDF of responsibility.
If Israel operated in the Damascus suburbs, at risk of Iranian or Hezbollah retaliation, then one may venture a guess that the operation was designed to thwart an imminent attack by Kuntar.
As Israeli officials used to say with regard to Palestinian terrorists targeted in order to prevent impending attacks, Kuntar was a “ticking bomb.”