During the early evening hours, reports indicated that an Israeli army helicopter gunship targeted a Hezbollah force on Syria’s Golan Heights in the town of Mazraat al-Amal. A short time later, Hezbollah confirmed that a number of its members were killed. Reports indicate that those killed included the following commanders: Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hezbollah’s former military commander assassinated in Damascus in 2008, and Hajj Mohammed Issa. Additional reports are indicating that Iranian military officers were also killed in the strikes. These are unconfirmed, but it would not be surprising, given the presence of Hezbollah commanders. Israel has officially refused to comment.
In the hours after the attack, Hezbollah has placed its forces in southern Lebanon and on the Israeli border on high-alert. Israel likely did the same even before the strikes, to deter a Hezbollah response. Meanwhile, reports now show that Israeli warplanes are flying over southern Lebanon and on the Syrian border.
Although Israel has targeted Hezbollah since 2006, today’s suspected Israeli attack will likely be considered one of the most important developments in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict since the 2006 war. Hezbollah has intensified its threats against Israel over the past year, while Israel has been concerned of possible Iranian and Hezbollah plans to use the volatile territory of Syria’s Golan Heights as a new theater for operations against Israel. The airstrike came just days after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah again threatened to conquer Israeli territory in the next war, while saying his group’s rockets can target all of Israel. Also, the killing of Hezbollah commanders, especially Jihad Mughniyeh – who was likely considered a major figure of Hezbollah’s future, will surely compel some level of response. Moreover, any Iranian deaths could add pressure on Hezbollah to retaliate.
As has been seen before, Hezbollah will likely choose to respond at a time and way of its choosing. Choosing to retaliate at this moment, when Israel’s army is on alert, could lead to an uncontrolled escalation with an Israeli military that has been continuously warning that the next war with Hezbollah will affect all of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leaders are likely to contemplate a response that meets the group’s present interests, mainly deterring Israel and preserving the group’s reputation as the chief actor of resistance against the Jewish state. But here lies the problem for Hezbollah, the attack, including its target, shows that Israel is not fully deterred from attacking the group, at least in Syria.