At least five Hezbollah members, including at least one senior commander, were killed in an Israeli helicopter strike in the Syrian Golan Heights on Sunday, sources close to the terror group said Sunday night.
Among the dead was Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander killed in Damascus in 2008.
Jihad Mughniyeh had been serving as the Shi’ite terrorist group’s Golan District commander, Syrian National Council spokesman Mouayyed Ghizlan told CNN in November.
The strike raised fears that a larger conflagration could be in the offing, with both Israel and Hezbollah bracing for possible continued fighting amid an increase in tensions.
Hezbollah confirmed that several fighters were killed. A Hezbollah official identified one of the dead as Mughniyeh, and another as senior Hezbollah commander, Mohammed Issa. He said at least one Iranian national with the group was also killed.
“A group of Hezbollah mujahedeen were martyred in a Zionist rocket attack in Quneitra, and their names will be revealed later,” said a message flashed on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar news channel.
They were killed during a field reconnaissance mission in the Mazraat Amal village of Quneitra province, it said.
The Israeli army took “a long series of steps” to brace for a possible Hezbollah response, Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Residents of northern Israel were said to be concerned about Hezbollah retaliation. Israel did not order the opening of bomb shelters on the Israeli side of the Golan, however, Channel 2 said.
جهاد مغنية هو نجل عماد مغنية القائد العسكري لحزب الله الذي اغتالته اسرائيل عام 2008 في دمشق pic.twitter.com/tdCKwTL2ye
— Ali Hashem علي هاشم (@alihashem_tv) January 18, 2015
Al-Jazeera said six fighters had been killed, citing a Hezbollah statement. AFP also reported six had been killed. Beirut’s Daily Star, however, put the death toll at 10.
Hezbollah fighters in towns and villages along the border with Israel went on high alert, said an official from the group. In the Shiite-dominated areas of south Lebanon and Beirut the streets emptied quickly, as residents feared an escalation. Hezbollah-run al-Manar TV warned that Israel was “playing with fire that puts the security of the whole Middle East on edge.”
Sunday’s strike targeted two Hezbollah vehicles as fighters were inspecting positions in the Golan Heights, close to the Israeli-controlled frontier, in an area known as Mazrat al-Amal, Hezbollah said.
“While a group of Hezbollah fighters were on a field inspection of the town, Mazrat al-Amal… They faced rocket shelling from helicopters of the Israeli enemy, leading to the martyrdom of a number of holy warrior brothers, whose names will be announced once their honorable families have been informed,” it said.
The Hezbollah fighters were in two vehicles when they were hit, said another official.
A Syrian activist said Hezbollah was widely rumored to be training pro-Assad militiamen and Syrian government forces near the area of the strikes.
An Israeli security source confirmed Lebanese media reports that an Israeli helicopter fired two missiles at ground targets in the Syrian Golan Heights near the town of Quneitra.
The security source said the strike targeted terrorists preparing “a major attack” on Israel, but could not provide details about the identities of the targets or the nature of the attack they were allegedly preparing.
The IDF would not comment.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon told an Israel radio station, however, that if Hezbollah said some of its forces had been killed, the question was what were they doing in the Syrian Golan Heights.
According to the source, Israeli drones were present in the area during the attack. Last month, the Syrian army said it shot down an Israeli reconnaissance drone flying over Quneitra province.
Al-Mayadeen, a Hezbollah-linked news outlet, reported that two Israeli reconnaissance aircraft were patrolling the area at the time of the airstrike.
“An Israeli helicopter fired two missiles on Amal Farms in Quneitra,” the Lebanese news channel said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based activist group monitoring the civil war, said the missiles fired Sunday targeted armed vehicles, citing local sources.
It said it did not know if the vehicles belonged to the army, Hezbollah or anti-Assad insurgents.
Other reports claimed the target was a missile launcher.
The elder Mughniyeh was a shadowy terrorist mastermind regarded as the organization’s No. 2 leader. He was assassinated in a 2008 car bomb in Damascus. Hezbollah blames Israel for the attack, but no state or group has taken responsibility for it.
Earlier in the day, Lebanese state media reported that three Lebanese soldiers suffered respiratory problems after Israeli soldiers threw tear gas grenades over the border.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating war in 2006, but since then have largely shied away from direct confrontation. But on Thursday Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah boasted that the group’s rockets could hit any part of Israel and threatened to invade the Galilee region of northern Israel in the next war between the two bitter foes.
Lebanese political analyst Imad Salamey said Hezbollah’s hands could be tied because it is so heavily invested in Syria. “It’s an awkward situation,” he said.
He said Hezbollah was unlikely to open up a second front in Lebanon while so many of its fighters are bogged down in Syria, and that it would probably not retaliate from Syria because it “invites increasing involvement by Israel to attack its operation inside Syria.”
“It does not have much to work with,” Salamey said.
Since Syria’s conflict began in March 2011, Israel has carried out several airstrikes in Syria that have targeted sophisticated weapons systems, including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and Iranian-made missiles, believed to be destined for Hezbollah.
The last such airstrike was in early December, when Israeli warplanes struck near Damascus’ international airport, as well as outside a town close to the Syria-Lebanon border.
Jihad Mughniyeh was estimated to be around 25, said a friend.
Officials close to Hezbollah said he was active in the group from a young age. He was a Hezbollah student activist at the Lebanese American University, and took on a more prominent role after the death of his father. His photograph has been taken with the group’s leader Nasrallah, highlighting their closeness.