Hezbollah says Israel killed fighter in Syria strike Monday

IDF warns Lebanon, steps up defenses amid threat of imminent Hezbollah attack

Border blast heightens tensions; army sets up roadblocks, sends more troops to north, boosts intelligence gathering, amid concern terror group may stage revenge attack

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed along the border with Lebanon on July 23, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)
Israel Defense Forces soldiers stationed along the border with Lebanon on July 23, 2020. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

The Israel Defense Forces further stepped up its defenses along the country’s northern borders on Friday, the army said, out of concern the Hezbollah terror group may carry out an attack against military targets along the frontier and warned Beirut it would bear responsibility for any possible Hezbollah strike.

Tensions were further heightened after a blast along the border Friday morning sent shrapnel into an Israeli Druze town.

“In light of a situational assessment in the IDF and in accordance with the Northern Command’s defense plan, the IDF’s deployment will change in both the military and civilian arena with the goal of strengthening defenses along the northern border,” the IDF said in a statement.

These moves came after Hezbollah accused Israel of killing one of its fighters in an airstrike outside Damascus on Monday night, which was widely attributed to the IDF. Israel has refused to comment on the matter, keeping its policy of ambiguity regarding its operations against Iran and its proxies in Syria.

In the past, Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate to losses of its soldiers in Syria with attacks on Israel. This was the case in September, when the terror group fired three anti-tank guided missiles at Israeli military targets along the Lebanese border, narrowly missing an IDF armored ambulance with five soldiers inside, after the IDF killed two of its fighters in Syria the month before.

In a tacit threat, the IDF preemptively warned Beirut that it sees the state of Lebanon as “responsible for all actions emanating from Lebanon.”

Earlier on Friday, explosions were also heard along the Syrian border, with shrapnel striking a home and a car on the Israeli side in the nearby Druze town of Majdal Shams, causing light damage. It was not immediately clear what caused the blasts, though the leading assessments were that they were the results of either anti-aircraft fire toward an IDF observation balloon or an artillery shell fired from Syria toward Israel.

As a result of these growing tensions, the IDF Northern Command, Military Intelligence and the Israeli Air Force have been on high alert in recent days.

“The IDF is concentrating its efforts in its mission to defend northern residents and is on high alert to all scenarios against the actions of the enemy, while minimally impacting the routine of civilian life.

Israel Defense Forces soldiers set up a roadblock on a highway near the border with Lebanon on July 23, 2020. (Basel Awidat/FLASH90)

Beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday night, roadblocks will be installed along a number of highways to prevent military vehicles vulnerable to attack from anti-tank guided missiles fired from either Lebanon or Syria, from driving on certain roads.

Entrances to some communities where the military maintains a presence that are exposed to attack will also be blocked for IDF vehicles. As the military assessed that Hezbollah planned to attack only IDF targets, civilian vehicles will be able to travel freely throughout the area.

However, the IDF said that some farmers who have fields directly along the border may be blocked from working their lands.

The military also cleared some troops out of positions directly along the border, moving them deeper into Israel, so that they would not represent a clear target for Hezbollah, while still allowing them to defend the frontier.

The IDF has also stepped up its intelligence collection efforts along the border in recent days. Throughout the day on Friday, Lebanese media reported on large numbers of Israeli drones flying overhead.

Head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram speaks to mayors of communities in northern Israel amid concerns of a Hezbollah attack on July 24, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

On Thursday, the IDF also announced it was deploying additional troops to the Northern Command: the Golani Brigade’s 13th Battalion, which recently completed an exercise in the area, as well as a small number of other troops.

On Friday morning, the head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram met with mayors of communities in northern Israel, reassuring them that the military would defend the region.

“Our central mission, including in these days, is to preserve the security of residents of the north. We are prepared for a wide variety of scenarios and are constantly holding situational assessments, and we will continue to prepare as needed to defend [the area] and for operational activities as necessary,” Baram said.

On Tuesday evening, Hezbollah accused Israel of killing one of its members — Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad — in an airstrike south of Damascus on Monday night, raising the possibility of retaliation against the Jewish state.

Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad, a member of the Hezbollah terror group, whom the organization says was killed in an Israeli airstrike on July 20, 2020. (Hezbollah media)

On Thursday, sources “familiar with [Hezbollah’s] views” told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the terror group was abiding by that same “equation that [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah set last year” of retaliating when one of its fighters is killed in Syria.

This was a reference to a speech made by Nasrallah after the deaths of two members in August 2019. “If Israel kills any of our members in Syria, we’ll respond from Lebanon and not in the Shebaa Farms, and we tell the Israeli army on the border to be very cautious and to wait for us,” Nasrallah at the time.

The airstrike attributed to Israel on Monday night hit weapons depots and military positions belonging to Syrian regime forces and Iran-backed militia fighters, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The group said the aerial bombardments caused several explosions around the town of Kiswah, an area that has long been associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The Reuters news service reported that the assault hit targets in the towns of Jabal al Mane, Muqaylabiya and Zakiya, causing “huge blasts” and allegedly killing Iranian personnel.

Reuters quoted a Syrian analyst with sources on the ground named Zaid al Reys as saying that the target of the attack was a “major ammunition depot.”

Israel has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It has targeted government troops, allied Iranian forces and fighters from the Lebanese Shiite terror group Hezbollah.

It rarely confirms details of its operations in Syria, but says Iran’s presence in support of President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah is a threat and that it will continue its strikes.

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