War unlikely, but some Hezbollah response certain, experts say after strike
Lebanese group will need to retaliate, but launching a large scale attack on Israel too risky at this point, some say
Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.
On February 16, 1992 an Israeli Apache helicopter tracked the car of Hezbollah leader Abbas Moussawi and released a missile, killing him, his wife, his son, and four other people. It was reportedly Israel’s first assassination by helicopter.
The operation was not fully planned. It had begun as intelligence work and had morphed, hastily, into a targeted killing.
It is still unclear whether this is what happened in the town of Mazrat Amal near Quneitra Sunday, when an Israeli helicopter was said to have attacked a convoy of senior Iranian and Hezbollah leaders, killing the son of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s slain commander of military operations; Mohammed Issa, a Hezbollah commander responsible for the organization’s operations in Syria and Iraq; and Ali Reza al-Tabatabai, an Iranian adviser to Hezbollah, among others, according to reports.
“I don’t think this was a targeted killing,” said Prof. Shlomo Shpiro, the head of the political studies department at Bar-Ilan University and a senior researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Instead, he said, it appeared to be a preventative move, meant to thwart a developing attack. “The Golan Heights is flammable enough without this sort of thing,” he said.
He suggested that the senior Hezbollah commanders may have been on an officer’s patrol — a pre-operation reconnaissance — and said the situation was akin to the Syrian fighter jet that crossed into Israeli air space, a threat too near and too grave to ignore.
Indeed, a “Western security source” quoted widely in Israeli media after the attack said Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh had been planning attacks on the Golan and even “had a few in the chamber.”
Much of the initial focus of the attack surrounded Mughniyeh, the son of former top commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was reportedly killed in an Israeli operation in 2008. Jihad Mughniyeh was close to Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah and had reportedly been given command of Hezbollah forces on the Syrian Golan Heights last year.
An Arab affairs commentator on Channel 10 news called him “a computer kid,” raised in the best schools, who had no real command capacity.
Yoram Schweitzer, head of the INSS think tank’s program on terrorism and low intensity conflict and a former head of the army’s counter international terror section, said he was “operationally involved” in Hezbollah’s action on the Syrian border.
Later, though, it became clear that among the nine reportedly killed, perhaps the largest Hezbollah death toll since 2006 at the hands of Israel, were Tabatabai and Muhammad Issa, commanders with far more experience.
Shpiro said there was “no doubt” that Hezbollah would respond. He doubted, though, that the response would come in the form of a missile barrage on central Israel, which would mean war, or a deadly attack against innocent Jews abroad.
In 1992, after the Mussawi assassination, Hezbollah bombed the Israeli embassy in Argentina, killing 29 people; two years later, the organization struck again, killing 85 more people at the Jewish AMIA building in Buenos Aires.
“I did not have sufficient awareness to the degree of the possible response in Argentina, a matter that would have led, it stands to reason, to a second thought about the decision to undertake the mission,” the head of military intelligence at the time, Maj. Gen. (ret) Uri Saguy, told Yedioth Ahronoth in 2009.
Shpiro, a longtime Hezbollah scholar, said Hezbollah had recently condemned the Paris attack against the journalists of Charlie Hebdo; he doubted a Buenos Aires-like response was in the cards.
“The war is in the media,” he said, submitting that the organization would likely be looking for retaliation away from Europe, “in our region,” that would outdo the Islamic State and have “the legitimacy of the muqawama,” or resistance.
Schweitzer, too, said that he did not expect a brazen response. A strong retaliation from within Lebanon is “the most dangerous for the organization,” he said, because it could lead to a new front, which Hezbollah is not interested in at this point.
After several failed attempts to avenge the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, who was reportedly killed by Israel in Damascus in 2008, and now the killing of his son, Hezbollah has an array of potential responses, and “even if the organization does respond immediately,” Schweitzer said, “they keep careful count of these sort of things.”