Unlike Israel's south, the Lebanese border has been relatively quiet, despite the presence of several militant groups that operate south of the Litani River. These factions vary in their religious and political ideologies, as well as their operational capability. Hezbollah is by far the most powerful of the groups, and boasts the capability to simultaneously launch hundreds of rockets as far south as the city of Dimona at nearly a moment's notice.
Other, less capable groups include Palestinian and global Jihad factions, many of which have small arsenals of short-range rockets, and have been blamed for similar flare-ups in the past.
The latest attack was in no way a fluke. Unlike the Gaza Strip, any attack on Israel from Lebanon is perpetrated after considerable calculation by several parties, including Hezbollah which controls southern Lebanon, and its backers in Iran and Syria. These parties understand that a serious provocation could result in an even broader conflict that would result in widespread damage across Lebanon, far greater than that inflicted in the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Despite the relative calm in Israel's north, localized flare-ups have occurred over the years, oftentimes drawing an Israeli response in the form of symbolic artillery barrages into open areas. Many of these attacks have coincided with events concerning the Palestinians, either in the territories or elsewhere in the region.
It is no coincidence that the relative calm in the north was shattered just hours after another mysterious explosion rocked a strategically important Iranian city. The reported blast in Esfahan, a hub of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, was the latest in what is perceived to be an enhanced sabotage campaign by Western spy agencies following the latest critical report by the IAEA.
In addition, Syria has recently threatened retaliation against Israel and Jordan over the killing of six air force pilots by insurgents in a raid earlier this week. It is no secret that both Syria and Iran wield considerable influence of both Shiite and Sunni militants in southern Lebanon, providing them with logistical, monetary and ideological support. Of these groups, Hezbollah has long been open about its close alliance with Iran, often stating that an attack on the Iranian nuclear program would result in an escalation with Israel.
Despite these close ties, it is unlikely that Hezbollah was directly responsible for the latest attack. Domestically, the group's political wing is facing the worst political crisis since it took power, with the March 14 opposition taking aim not only at its pro-Assad policies, but also on its insistence on maintaining its private army.
Amin Gemayel, a prominent opposition Christian figure, recently lashed out at Hezbollah, claiming that its "resistance" approach was no longer viable. Similar statements by other political figures signal that such sentiment is rapidly spreading among the Lebanese population, meaning that Hezbollah itself would have an especially difficult time justifying another conflict with Israel in the name of "resistance."
The Syrians and Iranians understand Hezbollah's military card is severely limited by its precarious domestic situation, yet still need an outlet from which to send a warning message to the Israelis. Palestinian and Sunni militant groups provide the most convenient option. The Syrian conflict has caused many of these groups to return to Lebanon, and the latest rocket barrage was preceded by a flux in inter-faction violence in Palestinian refugee camps in recent weeks.
Given its limited scope, the flare-up on the Lebanese border was mostly an example of the highly volatile way in which Israel and its enemies communicate. The fact that the attack was small in both scale and range signals that the Iranians and Syrians seek to warn the State of Israel that its operations to undermine Iranian or Syrian aspirations will not go unchecked.
Israel's limited response was meant to send a message that it will retaliate for any provocation, but does not seek a major conflict. As in past flare-ups, Lebanese militias will not likely respond, a message to Israel that they too do not seek a wide-scale confrontation. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is likely to keep its military option hidden in its many bunkers for the time being, unleashing it only when it senses a substantial threat to its position of power in Lebanon, or at the behest of its Iranian puppet masters.
Daniel Nisman works for Max Security Solutions, a risk consulting company based in the Middle East
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