JERUSALEM – Lebanese militant group Hezbollah targeted an Israeli armored vehicle with a roadside bomb on Monday along Israel’s northern border, to which the Israeli military responded by shelling southern Lebanon for the fifth day in a row.
The cross border attack comes just days after the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made threats to avenge the death of Samir Qantar, a prominent member of Hezbollah who was killed in Damascus on December 20th in an air strike the group says was conducted by Israel.
Qantar was killed along with eight others in an aerial attack on the Jaramana neighborhood of southeast Damascus, a neutral area with “no official armies,” according to local residents.
The heavy strike on what is usually a quite neighborhood underlines Israel’s often cloaked involvement in the Syrian crisis and highlights the frequent tit-for-tat vengeance between regional foes in an increasingly sectarian struggle.
Prior to his death, Qantar had “frequently” visited Syria, his brother Bassam told Syria Deeply. “His visits were related to his mission to support the Syrian Popular Resistance Movement in the Occupied Golan,” he said.
According to local residents, the building where Qantar was killed was a residential civilian building. And while it was unclear if he lived there, Qantar had been seen entering the building on a regular basis in the days leading up to the strike.
“It is not far away from the airport highway, where there are many militias,” said Taraek Kassab, a resident in the area. “The destruction of the building was not caused by normal rebel militias around it; it was clear that it was an intelligence operation.”
The Syrian government, like Hezbollah, has also accused Israel of assassinating Qantar. Bassam stated he could confirm the Israelis were behind Samir’s death, but he did not provide a source.
While Israeli politicians publicly praised the death of Qantar, the Israeli military has not officially taken responsibility for the strike.
According to senior fellow from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Aram Nerguizian, both sides of this are trying to show their military might and credibility. “But at a time when Hezbollah is far more under pressure,” he said, “it’s very difficult for Hezbollah to hide the fact that they really don’t want a major escalation.”
Samir Qantar was a member of the Lebanese Druze community, and served nearly three decades in an Israeli prison after his capture while fighting with the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1979. He was convicted in an Israeli court for murdering a father and four-year-old daughter in the disputed Golan Heights, a crime he denied. He was then released during an Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap in 2008.
Bassem said his brother joined the Hezbollah movement while he was in prison. “[He] joined Hezbollah’s party in 2005, three years before his freedom. He believed that this party is the party that’s continuing in ‘the Resistance’ [against Israel].”
Qantar and his men were believed to be planning an offensive aimed at liberating the contested Golan Heights from Israeli occupation, a territory Israel annexed from Syria in 1967.
Qantar’s death highlighted Israel’s involvement within the ongoing chaos in Syria: Israeli media regularly reports on their military’s air strikes in the country, which are specifically conducted against Hezbollah posts and weapons shipments. The Israeli government has continually stated it is concerned with Iran’s support and transfer of weapons to Hezbollah through Syria.
Nerguizian noted the continuing clashes between Israel and the militia group is a “shadow war” that has continued since the end of 2006 conflict.
Israel’s priority, he said, is “to deny and disrupt Hezbollah’s ability to recapitalize itself [through] its supply lines from Iran, to undermine its stability operations in Syria, to de-legitimize the group because it forces [them] to have to prioritize.”
The Israeli Army failed to respond to questions concerning security and tactics regarding Hezbollah in Syria.
Bassem Qantar said his family stands by his brother and his mission in Syria. “As a family we believe that Samir fulfilled his dream to sacrifice his life for the sake of his people. The Syrian conflict is a big tragedy. The more Syrian people will suffer the [more the] whole world will suffer,” he said.
“Peace in Syria starts after the defeat of terrorism. You cannot achieve anything politically while you have the terrorists taking over many areas in Syria, and while the Israelis are taking over the Golan Heights.”
But with the exception of ISIS, identifying “terrorist” groups has been a point of contention between global leaders grappling with military strategy and political solutions to Syria’s conflict. For Israel, Hezbollah is as much a threat as ISIS.
Israel has previously avoided any major involvement in Syria, but it seems the “Jewish state,” grappling with its nationalistic identity, has joined the tribal war steadily engulfing the region.
Nerguizian believes the Israelis are trying to balance “degrading Hezbollah’s supply lines” and military capability, while facing the “demographic reality” and influence of other sectarian militant groups.
The latest Russian air strikes in the south of Syria have prompted the Israeli military to prepare for a potential terrorist attack along the Golan Heights border. Israeli intelligence has cited threats from ISIS-linked militias, but shelling in recent days shows they also believe the border is still susceptible to Hezbollah-supported militias continuing Qantar’s mission.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated on December 29 that Israel would “aggressively retaliate” should Hezbollah forces attack.
Nevertheless, Nerguizian said Russia’s participation in Syria combined with their “robust communication” with Israel on military and geopolitical objectives in the region negate Hezbollah’s ability to carry out the Golan mission.
“Russia and Israel have a strong set of priorities that they share, in terms of deconfliction. It might not be very compatible with what Hezbollah would have preferred,” he said.
Still, the death of Qantar has magnified grudges of the past. The actions of Hezbollah and Israel are a clear demonstration of mutual provocation in a Syrian battle space already devastated by sectarian aggressions.
Top image: Hezbollah fighters, center, carry the coffin of Hezbollah high-profile militant Samir Qantar during his funeral procession in the southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, December. 21, 2015. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)