Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning to Iran and Hezbollah that “Israel knows what you’re doing, Israel knows where you’re doing it,” hours after Israel announced it had uncovered a terror cell in the Syrian Golan Heights.
The Hezbollah cell is “just the tip of the iceberg,” Netanyahu, who also serves as defense minister, said on Wednesday.
The Israel Defense Forces said earlier Wednesday that it had exposed a nascent Hezbollah cell established in a border village on the Syrian Golan Heights in recent months, and vowed to prevent the terrorist group from operating against Israel from Syrian soil, even at the risk of sparking a small-scale conflict.
The Iran-backed, Lebanon-based group has been trying to create a front in the Syrian Golan for years, but has struggled to gain a sufficient foothold in the southern border area. However, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s conquest of the border area this summer gave the regime-allied group an opportunity to again try to establish the necessary infrastructure with which it could threaten Israel near the border.
“This morning Israel exposed a Hezbollah terror network on the Golan Heights. Hezbollah is a terror organization. It’s a proxy of Iran. It does Iran’s bidding and this terror network is part of Iran’s aggression against Israel,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.
“So I have a clear message for Iran and for Hezbollah,” he added. “Israel knows what you’re doing, Israel knows where you’re doing it. What we’ve uncovered today is just the tip of the iceberg. We know a lot more.”
He warned: “Israel will continue to do all that’s necessary to defend itself. We will continue to use all means, overt and covert, to block Iran’s effort to use Syria, Lebanon and Gaza as forward bases for attacking Israel.”
In revealing the cell’s existence, the military said, “The network is new and currently focused on becoming familiarized with the Golan Heights area. It is intended to eventually control teams of Syrian operatives who will launch attacks against Israel.”
At this stage the Hezbollah plot — known within the organization as the “Golan File” — mostly involves collecting intelligence and recruiting operatives, but also has weaponry in its possession, mainly explosives, light arms, machine guns and antitank missiles, according to the IDF.
The military said the terror group may try to bring rockets, missiles and other weaponry into the area in the future, but is concerned that such munitions would be destroyed by Israeli strikes.
Former commander of the IDF Northern Command Amiram Levin accused unspecified figures, but likely referring to Netanyahu, of using the military for political ends with the IDF spokesperson’s dramatic announcement on Wednesday morning about what he described as long-known information.
“Noise and ruckus about nothing. This looks like a cynical use of the IDF in order to dictate the political order of the day. There is nothing new here. So Hezbollah tried to entrench itself and do all kinds of things. There’s nothing new in that, nor is there a new threat,” Levin said in an interview on Israel Radio Wednesday.
According to the IDF, the cell’s activities are focused on the border region across from Israel’s northern Golan Heights, between the abandoned city of Quneitra and the village of Arnah. Much of its infrastructure has been set up around the Druze village of Khader, an area that was hit recently by an artillery strike attributed to Israel.
In a statement, the commander of the IDF Golan Division, Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher, said the military “will act with all our might to force this terrorist organization out of the Golan Heights and ensure the stability of the area.”
Military action against Hezbollah could lead to a retaliation by the terror group or its Iranian patron, but IDF officials said the army was prepared to risk such a conflict in order to avoid the larger threat posed by the cell.
In an apparent effort to drive a wedge between Hezbollah and Assad, the military claimed the activities of the cell are being kept hidden from the regime in Damascus, which as the Syrian civil war draws to a close is interested in stabilizing the area, rather than having it again become a combat zone.
However, Israeli defense analysts cast doubt on the allegation, noting the significant cooperation between the Lebanese terror group, the Syrian military and pro-regime militias in the Golan region, as well as recent artillery strikes on Hezbollah positions near the border, which were attributed to the IDF and would likely have raised suspicions about the terror group’s activities in the area.
“They say that this revelation is going to surprise Assad. It’s not clear to me how, when Hezbollah men and their friends are using Syrian military infrastructure and are working in cooperation with militias that are very close to the regime,” veteran Arab affairs analyst Shimrit Meir wrote on Twitter.
Previously classified intelligence now cleared for publication: Ali Musa Daqduq, a senior operative in the Lebanon-based terrorist organization Hezbollah, has been operating a new terror cell in… Syria.@LTCJonathan pic.twitter.com/peErasDPOa
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) March 13, 2019
The IDF said the cell largely comprised Syrian mercenaries — some of them Druze — but led by Lebanese commanders and “masterminded” by veteran terrorist Ali Musa Daqduq.
The new effort was largely a continuation of plans to establish Hezbollah infrastructure starting in 2013. These operations largely ended in early 2015 following an airstrike, attributed to Israel, that killed senior terrorist leader Jihad Mughniyeh as he visited the Syrian Golan along with a number of other senior Hezbollah members.
According to the IDF, many of the cell members took part in those previous efforts by Hezbollah to form a front on the Syrian border.
“We have a clear message: We are not going to allow Hezbollah to establish a terror infrastructure in Syria capable of harming Israeli civilians,” the army said, adding that it also held the Syrian government responsible for all actions emanating from its soil.
The IDF’s announcement on Wednesday came after Syrian state media reported last week that Israeli forces fired a single shell at Khader, which lies just across the demilitarized zone between the two countries on the Golan Heights and is in Syria’s Quneitra province.
According to the state-run SANA news agency, the shell did not cause any injuries or damage. It was not immediately clear what the target was and the IDF had no comment.
Until recently, Israel typically refrained from commenting on its military activities against Iran in Syria, neither confirming nor denying strikes. Over the past few months, however, that policy of ambiguity has been largely abandoned by Israeli military and political officials, who have begun more openly discussing the IDF operations in Syria.
Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria to thwart attempts to smuggle weapons to the Hezbollah terror group and keep Iranian-backed forces from entrenching near the border.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.