Hezbollah had to respond. That was clear to both sides. An alleged Israeli attack against a convoy on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, in clear sight of UN troops, via aircraft, killing an iconic Hezbollah operative and an Iranian general, in this part of the world, was going to necessitate the drawing of blood. The question was what kind.
Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Commander, Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari, promised “destructive thunderbolts.” But the truth is there were not that many targets for those thunderbolts.
A strike against innocent Jewish civilians – as was the case in the 1992 and 1994 Buenos Aires bombings – leaving aside its abhorrence (never much of a deterrent), would put at risk Iran’s crucial negotiations with the P5+1, drawing the world’s attention away from centrifuge counting and toward other elements of the Iranian regime’s influence, such as global terror activity.
A strike from Syria, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon made clear in recent days, would draw a response in Syria, where Bashar Assad’s regime provides many easy targets and is still fighting for its life. A strong Israeli strike would jeopardize Iran and Hezbollah’s crucial interest of maintaining the Assad regime, an ally of convenience to the Shiite cause and the land bridge between Iran and its followers in Lebanon.
A blow from within Lebanon proper would draw an Israeli response, perhaps in Beirut, pulling Lebanon closer to the Syrian civil war, which it desperately seeks to keep at bay, and placing Hezbollah, already engaged up the eyeballs in that war, under closer domestic scrutiny.
This left Mount Dov – the ridgeline running southwest from the Hermon into the Galilee. It’s contested soil. UN secretary general Kofi Annan said on June 16, 2000, that Israel has “withdrawn from the country [Lebanon], in full compliance with Security Council resolution 425.” Hezbollah, however, has asserted that the seven-mile-long strip of territory is Lebanese. There is little historic backing for that claim, but military actions in the mountainous zone – held by a string of rickety mountaintop Israeli army forts – have long been considered part of the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hezbollah; the region is, like Limassol and Istanbul and other cities on the periphery of the Cold War, a murky zone with its own unwritten rules.
Maj. Gen. (res) Israel Ziv, former head of the army’s operations directorate, said in a conference call with journalists on Wednesday that this was precisely why Hezbollah chose the region for its retaliatory strike, launching anti-tank missiles at an army convoy. “Generally, what happens in Shaba’a, stays in Shaba’a,” he said, using the Arabic name for the border territory.
Further evidence of Hezbollah’s desire to draw blood but not spark a war came in the nature of the attack: it was not, as initially feared, an abduction operation. The mortar fire on the Hermon was not part of a deception. The attack was launched from a distance at an army convoy.
An abduction, a strike on a school bus, a city, a village: all of those would have signaled a desire to drag Israel into an all-out war.
Instead, as Orit Perlov of the INSS think tank noted on Twitter, “it was symmetrical eye 4 eye.”
And yet, clearly, the situation is flammable. Israel has convened the brass of the IDF’s General Staff and the security cabinet. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, a cabinet member, called for “a change in Israel’s approach up until now,” saying that the Israeli response should be “very harsh and disproportionate.”
The options that the army fans out, and the approach chosen by the cabinet, will decide, within the coming hours, if Israel is headed toward de-escalation or war.