Israel braces for possible Hezbollah strike
Beirut – — Beating their chests in anger and chanting “Death to Israel,” thousands of mourners marched Monday in a funeral procession for a prominent Hezbollah fighter killed with five other members of the Shiite militant group in an Israeli airstrike in Syria’s Golan Heights.
Tehran added to the combustible mix by announcing that the strike — neither confirmed nor denied by Israel — also killed a senior Iranian general, underscoring the extent of Iran and Hezbollah’s deep involvement in the volatile area on Israel’s doorstep.
Sunday’s deadly attack placed Hezbollah in a tough spot, as it weighs carefully how to respond. A significant retaliation risks drawing even tougher Israeli reprisals, plunging Lebanon into yet another crippling war with the Jewish state for which there is very little appetite among Lebanese public opinion.
Stretched thin and neck-deep in Syria’s civil war where the group’s Shiite fighters are battling alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces, Hezbollah must also decide whether it can afford to open up another front with Israel.
Jihad Mughniyeh, who was buried Monday in south Beirut, did not hold a particularly senior rank in the party. But he was the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a top Hezbollah operative widely considered to have built Hezbollah’s military operations infrastructure and the second most revered figure inside Hezbollah.
He was assassinated in 2008 in Damascus in a bombing that Hezbollah says was carried out by Israel’s Mossad spy agency.
The 25-year-old Mughniyeh took on a more prominent role after the death of his father. He has been photographed with Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, and with the powerful Iranian Gen. Ghasem Soleimani, highlighting his prominence within the group.
“For Hezbollah leaders, rank and file, and core supporters, the attack against Jihad Mughniyeh is akin to an attack against a member of their own family,” said Randa Slim, a director at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
“The fact that Hezbollah has not avenged Imad Mughniyeh’s death to-date raises the bar for Nasrallah and Hezbollah military leadership to react in a big way this time… irrespective of the risks of an escalation,” she said.
Mughniyeh, who had recently been entrusted with overseeing operations in the Golan Heights, is the group’s most prominent figure to die so far in Syria since Hezbollah joined the conflict next door in 2012, fighting on Assad’s side against the Sunni-led rebellion.
The airstrike exposed Hezbollah’s involvement in the Golan area — which is now host to an explosive mix of al-Qaida-linked Syrian rebels, Syrian government forces, Hezbollah operatives and Israeli soldiers, all operating in close proximity.
Hezbollah’s Manar television channel broadcast footage from the site of the airstrikes, showing a mangled wreck of metal amid snow; nearby the footage showed radar installations and a military base that the channel said was in Israeli-controlled territory.
Israeli officials had long expressed concern about Hezbollah activities along the border and blamed the group for a number of roadside bombings last year in the area.
In an hours-long TV interview last week, Nasrallah denied Hezbollah was involved in any “resistance work” in the Golan, claiming that the group was only offering support, assistance or training to Syrian groups there.
Eyal Ben-Reuven, a reserve Israeli general and former deputy head of its northern command, said the presence of such a high-ranking official on Israel’s doorstep indicated that Hezbollah and Iran were planning something big against Israel.
Hezbollah said its fighters were targeted as they were “inspecting positions” near the Israeli-controlled border in the Golan.
Thousands of people lined the streets of the Shiite-dominated neighborhood of Ghobeiri in southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold, as women threw rice and confetti from balconies to celebrate the “martyrdom” of Jihad Mughniyeh.
Hezbollah loyalists held hands as they pushed people back to make way for the funeral procession down the commercial street.
They wore badges that showed Jihad Mughniyeh with his father, and read “Jihad, Imad, Martyrdom.”
“This martyrdom demands a large turnout, and those who support the resistance are prepared to give more, regardless of the loss,” said a black-clad young man.
“They did this to terrify us,” shouted a man over a loudspeaker. “But we say: death to Israel!”
The deaths of the six Hezbollah fighters elevated tensions between Israel and the powerful Lebanese Shiite movement, which recently boasted of rockets that can hit any part of the Jewish state. But it was also a significant setback, coming on the heels of a confirmation last week by Nasrallah that the organization had uncovered and arrested a senior operative who was spying for Israel.
In a statement published on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s website, Tehran confirmed that an Iranian general also was killed in the Israeli airstrike.
It said Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was on assignment in Syria, giving “crucial advice” to Syrians fighting terrorists, a reference to Sunni rebels and Islamic extremists fighting against Assad’s troops.