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Analysis

Thought Hezbollah gave up on revenge for Kuntar? Think again

After Nasrallah’s speech vowing to retaliate for death of arch-terrorist, group will be forced to respond, if only to keep edge over IS in anti-Israel rivalry

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.

Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (right) speaking next to freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar (left) at a stadium in Beirut, July 16, 2008. (AFP/Mussa al-Husseini, file)
Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (right) speaking next to freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar (left) at a stadium in Beirut, July 16, 2008. (AFP/Mussa al-Husseini, file)

Since terrorist Samir Kuntar was assassinated last week, more than a few Israeli officials have questioned whether Hezbollah will retaliate.

Perhaps it was wishful thinking, or an attempt to impose Western logic on Hezbollah and the Middle East. Hezbollah would not risk a confrontation with Israel at this stage, they may have told themselves, not now, with one-third of its fighters not ready for battle, and another one-third steeped in the fighting in the Syrian civil war.

But the speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Sunday clarified that he is determined to retaliate, even if his organization pays a heavy price for it.

“The retaliation to Samir’s assassination will inevitably come,” he said. “The Israelis are worried, and they should be worried — along the border, inside Israel and outside of it.

“We do not fear any repercussions or threats, and we cannot tolerate that the blood of our jihadist fighters and brother be shed anywhere in this world,” Nasrallah said at a memorial event at a hall in Dahieh, a Hezbollah bastion south of Beirut, in a televised address.

Nasrallah, who knows the rules of the Middle East, is well aware that no response will likely undermine Hezbollah’s image and standing in Lebanon and Syria.

In this neighborhood, ignoring Kuntar’s assassination would be interpreted as exceptional weakness in the face of Israel, and therefore would give a boost to its enemies both within (in Lebanon, over the fight for the next president) and without (Syria).

And here, it should be noted that Hezbollah’s archenemy, the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided this week to increase the threats against Israel in recent days. Meaning, if Israel didn’t have enough troubles until now, these past few days have fostered a competition between what are probably the world’s two strongest terror groups over who can alarm Israel more.

Both leaders — al-Baghdadi the Sunni, and Nasrallah the Shiite — hope that ramping up the rhetoric against Israel will help them earn Muslim and Arab support, which is waning precisely due to their incessant fighting against each other. The Islamic State had been dealt military blows, primarily in Iraq (but also in Kobani and Aleppo); and Hezbollah has been hit with more and more casualties in Syria, and is paralyzing the political system in Lebanon.

Even the “gains” by Russia and the Syrian army — including this weekend’s assassination of the Army of Islam rebel leader Zahran Allouch — are not expected to change the face of the fighting in Syria or bring a Hezbollah victory in the near future. Precisely the opposite. They delay the pullout of the Islamic State from Damascus suburbs, as had been agreed, and the fighting there is ongoing.

The assassination also led the Army of Islam and another rebel group Aharar al-Sham to refuse to cooperate in talks with Syrian officials on the future of Syria, set for January 25 in Geneva. (Moscow has also vetoed the participation of these two organizations.) In other words, the number of wounded and killed in the Syrian civil war keeps rising, with no end in sight.

Despite the two terror groups’ current difficulties, for Hezbollah especially, Nasrallah’s public pledges to respond to the assassination will force him to take military action to prove he is true to his threats. And where will such a step lead? It’s difficult to say, but certainly not to a quieter and more peaceful Middle East.

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