Chronicle of a death, and a response, foretold

Chronicle of a death, and a response, foretold

Notorious terrorist Samir Kuntar knew he was going to die; and Israel knows that Hezbollah’s reaction will not be long in coming

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)

Samir Kuntar was a doomed man.

From the moment he regained his freedom as part of a 2008 prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah (or, to put it more accurately, a deal exchanging live prisoners for corpses), Kuntar challenged the State of Israel. Not content with having murdered Daniel Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat in Nahariya in 1979 — during which he smashed Einat’s head repeatedly against a rock — this loathsome terrorist decided to pay his debt to Hezbollah, the organization responsible for his release from prison, by working for it.

After the civil war in Syria began, Hezbollah sent Kuntar to set up a terrorist infrastructure in the Druze villages on the Syrian Golan Heights, particularly in the area that remained under the regime’s control around the town of al-Hader. But Kuntar was not all that successful in his new position, to put it mildly. The efforts by Hezbollah and Iran to give him support in the shape of Jihad Mughniyeh — son of Imad Mughniyeh, the Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah terror chief who was killed by a car bomb in 2008 — and members of the Revolutionary Guards failed after that cadre of terrorists was eliminated in an airstrike, attributed to Israel, in early 2015.

Over the past year Kuntar linked up with the Iranians, who treated the Syrian Golan Heights like Iran’s 15th province (Bahrain being the 14th). Their attempt to use the area as a base for terror attacks against Israel meant Kuntar’s elimination was only a matter of time.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Jihad Mughniyeh (photo credit: @khamenei_ir, Twitter)
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei (right) and Jihad Mughniyeh (@khamenei_ir, Twitter)

Kuntar knew it. Last March he wrote a will, which Hezbollah published immediately after he was assassinated. “Ever since I joined the path of struggle and jihad in order to remove the oppressor from Palestine and its children and drive off the oppressor and death from our people’s children in Lebanon, I was convinced that the end of this path would be either victory or a martyr’s death… Complete victory and the removal of the Zionist entity require more victims, many more than those who have been sacrificed until now.”

As he had predicted, then, a “martyr’s death” it was.

Hezbollah’s response will not be long in coming. All that remains to be seen is what form it will take.

It was obvious that the elimination of Jihad Mughniyeh would also draw a reaction. Just 10 days after the drone strike near Quneitra, which killed him together with an Iranian general, Hezbollah fired rockets at a convoy of Israeli army vehicles. Two soldiers were killed, but the incident could have been far deadlier.

Man against nature (and Hezbollah)

No unusual movement was spotted on the Lebanese border on Sunday afternoon, roughly 12 hours after Kuntar was killed on the outskirts of Damascus.

On the Israeli side, voices were heard expressing doubt that Hezbollah would retaliate for the killing (of course, no one admits officially that Israel was behind it).

The northern border appeared to be deep in winter hibernation, though the calm is a facade. Few Israeli army vehicles could be seen on the northern highway, perhaps in an effort to avoid giving Hezbollah targets to attack.

A general view taken on December 20, 2015, shows Syrians gathering at the site of a reported Israeli air raid that killed Samir Kuntar, in Jaramana, southeast of the Syrian capital Damascus. (AFP/LOUAI BESHARA)
Syrians gathering at the site of a reported Israeli air raid that killed Samir Kuntar in Jaramana, southeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, December 20, 2015. (AFP/Louai Beshara)

Lebanese Army outposts can be seen very clearly with the naked eye from this side of the fence. Hezbollah’s positions and fighters are another matter.

Hezbollah is engaging in no visible activity. Its people move about in civilian clothing with their weapons concealed, and only occasionally are civilian cars seen flying Hezbollah flags.

Still, the Israeli eyes observing the Lebanese side can see Hezbollah’s “low-signature” activity near the border: lookouts disguised as shepherds; farmers “innocently” approaching the Israeli side and then vanishing.

But these days, a military response against Israel is no small matter for Hezbollah. First, it must make certain that the action, whatever it is, does not lead to an all-out conflict with Israel at a time when Hezbollah is neck-deep in the fighting in Syria. For example, firing rockets could draw too sharp a response from Israel; so too a ground incursion into Israeli territory.

What about an attack by Hezbollah on a target abroad? In terms of operations and intelligence, such a task is even more complex. Hezbollah’s infrastructure for perpetrating terror attacks abroad in order to avenge the killing of Imad Mughniyeh failed more than once — before the bombing of a bus carrying Israeli passengers in Burgas, Bulgaria, in July 2012 that killed five, including the bus driver, and injured 32.

So a scenario similar to the one that took place on January 28, 2015 — in which anti-tank rockets were fired at Israeli army vehicles — seems the most likely. Yet this is still Hezbollah, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to make precise predictions about its actions.

Israeli army jeeps patrol along the Northern Israeli border with Lebanon on July 14, 2014 (photo credit: Ayal Margolin/Flash90)
Israeli army jeeps patrol along the northern Israeli border with Lebanon. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Whatever the case, Israel is waiting for Hezbollah’s next move. Farmers in the Metulla region were asked on Wednesday to keep away from the border. The engineering preparations for constructing a barrier against a possible raid by Hezbollah are still under way in the western sector of the border. Civilian and military bulldozers alike are continuing their work, despite the high tension and level of alert. Kilometers of earthworks have been built up to prevent a surprise attack.

In charge of the project is Col. Alon Mendes, the commanding officer of the 300th Brigade, who conceived the idea one morning (Amir Buhbut of Walla News was the first to report it): to carve a kind of artificial cliff into the mountain in the problem areas, to keep Hezbollah personnel from reaching the border area without being spotted by Israel.

Without the barrier, a company of Hezbollah fighters would be able to approach the fence using the local vegetation as cover, and attack an Israeli target from there.

Clearing the barrier requires the use of ladders, as well as exposed traffic on the ground, so any force, no matter how elite, will be delayed for minutes on the lower ground where Israel can observe them.

Will the man-made cliff prevent Hezbollah from responding to the elimination of Samir Kuntar? It will make things harder — but no, probably, not.

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