The Israel Defense Forces said Wednesday that it had exposed a nascent Hezbollah terror 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 a sparking small-scale conflict.
The Iran-backed, Lebanon-based group has been trying to create a front on the Syrian Golan for years, but was unable to gain a sufficient foothold in the area until now. 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.
“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,” the military said in a statement.
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, namely 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.
Sarit Zehavi, a former IDF intelligence officer and current head of security think tank Alma, contradicted the military, saying this “Golan File” Hezbollah plot was not a new one, regardless of the severity of the threat risk posed by it.
“It is very significant, except for the fact this is not completely new. Hezbollah, in the past [few] years, has been trying a few times to establish a military infrastructure in the Syrian side of the Golan, and this is the most updated one that the IDF has decided to reveal,” Zehavi said in a phone briefing to the Israel Project organization.
Former commander of the IDF Northern Command Amiram Levin accused unspecified figures 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 region.”
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 this 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, which as the Syrian civil war draws to a close is interested in stabilizing the region, 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.
“A portion of the operatives underwent courses and training on behalf of Hezbollah in sabotage, sharpshooting and firing Grad rockets,” the army said.
In some cases, members of the local Druze population of Khader joined the cell for “financial reasons,” according to the IDF.
Daqduq is wanted in the United States for attacks against American forces in Iraq, including planning an attack in Karbala in 2007 that resulted in the deaths of five US soldiers.
According to the US Treasury Department, Daqduq has served “as commander of a Hezbollah special forces unit and chief of a protective detail for Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.”
Daqduq was arrested in 2007 and imprisoned in Iraq, but was released five years later and sent to Lebanon.
The IDF said this summer Daqduq, a Hezbollah member since 1983, was given the task of establishing Hezbollah observation posts against Israel on Syrian soil.
The military released photographs of the false identification cards Daqduq used in his movements throughout the region in recent years, through Iraw, Lebanon and Syria.
The Israeli army also identified a number of other senior Hezbollah operatives taking part in the Syrian Golan efforts: Bashar and Ismail Mustafa, Talal Hassoun and Fahim Abu Qais.
“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.
Last month Syrian state media reported that Israel had shelled targets in the nearby deserted Syrian city of Quneitra.
While Israel did not comment on the strike at the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the incident the next day, saying: “We are working all the time to block Iran. We operate every day, including yesterday, against Iran and its efforts to entrench itself in the region.”
Israeli military reporters were told that the strike on Quneitra targeted Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen trying to set up a base of operations near the Israeli border. The tank shelling was also meant to serve as a warning to Syria and other Iranian proxies that Israel would not tolerate Tehran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence in the Syrian Golan.
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 Israel Defense Forces’ 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.