A waiting game on the northern border
Analysis: If targeted assassinations on Syrian Golan were designed to prevent establishment of new front against Israel, result may well be exact opposite; but at least intelligence was accurate, for it can only be assumed perpetrators knew who was in vehicle, including general from Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
The targeted killing on the Syrian Golan of members of Hezbollah's elite, under the command of Jihad Mughniyah and supervised by Iranian general Mohammed Allah-Dadi, has almost left them no choice.
Hezbollah and the Syrians are looking to their Iranian patron to see what he is capable of when Israel so publicly humiliates him as well.
The working assumption is that they will look for a concentration of soldiers - a post, a camp, a convoy. This could occur along the border and could also happen inside Israel. Experience shows that Hezbollah has sleeper cells inside the Green Line. If they decide on an attack on soldiers in the center of the country, they will be able to awaken those cells.
Iranians who have in the past been caught on operational missions arrived in Israel as tourists. Two years ago, a 40kg lump of particularly advanced plastic explosives was discovered in Nazareth, smuggled into Israel by Hezbollah. To this day, it is unclear for whom the shipment was intended. It is fair to assume that there are other weapons of this type dotted about the country, waiting to be used. Therefore, Israel has to be vigilant not just along its border, but also in its permanent military camps.
Against the assumption that the immediate target for revenge will be military and not civilian, the Israeli public has been advised to carry on as usual. But when Hezbollah and Iran seek to carry out a showcase attack that would leave Israel in shock, nothing is certain and as such, Israelis are not immune from threat. Of course, there is also the possibility that the perpetrators will try to cover their tracks by carrying out an attack on Israeli or Jewish targets abroad, as they did in Argentina in 1994.
It is no coincidence that the defense establishment differentiates between acts of retaliation against military targets and the possibility that such an operation will be carried out against civilians. That is what will make the difference between a local incident and an escalation along the border that could degenerate into all-out war in the north.
Civilian casualties would force Israel to take military action, including broad operational plans drafted by the Northern Command against Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Hezbollah, for example, shoots at strategic sites near or in civilian communities - Haifa port or refineries, for example - or tries to seize a community near the border and carry out a massacre, Israel will not see itself as committed to a limited response, neither in terms of the size of the front nor the scope of the fire power involved.
With this in mind, the IDF has altered its deployments in the Northern Command: It has reinforced its troops, added long-range artillery units of various kinds, put the Air Force on high alert, and placed Iron Dome batteries to protect strategic sites and large urban areas, from the Golan to the coast. To illustrate the Israeli threat, the IDF filmed and documented these troop movements. Let the Lebanese watch and internalize.
Israel is now waiting to see how the Iranian revenge plan rolls out. The Northern Command, General Staff and the defense minister are analyzing the information that flows into the defense establishment, have come up with various scenarios and are preparing to meet them. The feeling is that there is a ticking bomb, but they do not know where or when it will explode. Until then – the northern front is vigilant and alert.
From Kuntar to MughniyehIf Israel was indeed involved in the targeted killings, then it is part of an affair that actually began a year ago. The Iranians identified a hard limit to their ability to use Hezbollah for their own ends, given that any attempt to provoke Israel from along the Lebanese border was causing complications for the organization with the Beirut government. Therefore, they sought a way to create a deterrence against Israel.
Indeed, Israel identified a strategic decision by Hezbollah, in tandem with Iran, to create operational infrastructure on the northern Golan Heights, an area still under the control of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad. This infrastructure was not designed to deal with the rebels on the Golan or serve as a base of operations against the rebels deep inside Syria. It was established for one purpose - to open a second front against Israel, a continuation of the Lebanese front line into the Golan Heights.
From Hezbollah's perspective, its grip on the northern region of the Golan Heights creates an outpost that should block the possibility of an Israeli flank entering Lebanon and also serves a barrier against the trickle of jihadist elements hostile to Hezbollah entering Lebanon via Mount Dov (a landmass at which Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet). It was vital for Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah to create the appearance that the new infrastructure on the northern Golan was not directly related to Hezbollah, so that every time it carries out attacks against Israel, the group could shake off claims that the command to attack had come from Beirut, as if a new organization had been set up and was taking orders from Damascus.
Technically, this is true. This infrastructure, comprising members of Hezbollah, is directed by the Syrian headquarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The man placed at the head of the infrastructure was none other than Jihad Mughniyeh; but building the infrastructure, recruitment and training in sabotage, sniper fire, commando operations and rocket launches was all placed on the shoulders of Iranian general Allah-Dadi. Fighters at this outpost were not regularly situated on the Golan Heights. They were placed in a region of Damascus, where they benefited from Iranian intelligence and logistics, leaving to carry out pre-planned operations along the border fence with Israel.
This is not the first organization set up by the Iranians on the Golan Heights to create another front against Israel. The previous organization was headed by Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze terrorist released from Israeli prison in 2008, as part of a prisoner swap with Hezbollah. They managed to carry out a series of attacks, such as an ambush on a paratrooper patrol, firing rockets and placing IEDs along the fence. But the group recruited by Kuntar – who came in part from Druze villages on the Syrian northern Golan - was frozen once it became clear to the Iranians that the network had been exposed by "the Zionist enemy." Kuntar's deputy was killed a year ago in his car as he made his way to Damascus.
Kuntar was replaced in the new organization by Jihad Mughniyeh, who, despite his young age, was trusted by both Nasrallah and the Iranians. The group's first activity of note was to fire four rockets at the Israeli Hermon during Operation Protective Edge last summer. But efforts to open a second front, and at the same ease the plight of the people of Gaza, proved unsuccessful.
Since then, there has been no record of outstanding activity by the members of this infrastructure, some Lebanese civilians, some Syrians, and most members of Hezbollah. It was only a matter of time before the organization began plotting attacks against Israel from territory inside Syria, situated opposite Druze villages on the Israeli Golan Heights.
The not-so-secret seven
Last Sunday, a convoy of two vehicles - a pick-up truck and a jeep – made a journey on the Syrian part of the Golan Heights. This trip could be described as a tour by commanders prior to an operation. The seven men in the cars were Jihad Mughniyeh; his deputy; two operations men; Mohammad Issa, aka Abu Issa (known to soldiers of the IDF Northern Command as head of Hezbollah's al-Khiam sector and now commander of Hezbollah on the southern Golan); Iranian General Mohammed Ali Allah Dadi and his assistant. Seven people in total - not 12, as claimed. If it was Israel who attacked the convoy, we can safely assume that the identities of the seven were known - including that of the Iranian general.
As an aside, efforts are being made in Israel to minimize the seniority of the Iranian general, and paint him as an officer of middling rank and not as a general. But in the hierarchy of the Iranian Al-Quds force, he was only two ranks below the commander, General Suleimani. In reality, it does not really make much difference what Israel thinks about the man's place in the hierarchy. In Iranian eyes, he was an important general.
The convoy travelled around Syria's northern Golan Heights, then arrived at the Mazraat al-Amal region, five kilometers from the Israeli border. At 11:40am, they were hit by rockets fired from the air. Both vehicles caught fire, the seven passengers were killed. Observers from UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) sent a report to the Security Council stating that at 11:35 two unmanned aircraft had crossed the Israeli border into the airspace of the Syrian Golan.
According to the observers, the aircraft fired missiles that hit the two vehicles. If Israel did carry out the strike and had been trying to obscure its involvement, UNDOF spilled the beans.
There is a fine line between calculated risk and dangerous calculation, and such situations pose the ultimate test for decision-makers. If the event ends in a whimper, decision-makers are able to take full credit for an achievement. If the event only becomes more complicated, then they have to take full responsibility.
When it comes to special operations beyond the country's borders, the IDF presents the defense minister with plans at an operations and missions forum, which the minister then approves or rejects. Sometimes the army has to convince the prime minister as well.
This ritual is part of a multi-layered sieve that is ultimately designed to present the political echelon with an operational concept that has been refined and considered from all sides.
The "sieving" begins with the lower-level commands, divisions and special units. This is where operation ideas are generally born, and the army encourages such creativity. However, a purely operational perspective is not always the main consideration when deciding whether to green light an operation. An idea born in the field will go through the division commander and commanding officer, who will to try to persuade the chief of staff. The outlook is far broader at the level of GOC, Military Intelligence chief, head of operations and chief of staff.
On the eve of the discussion with the defense minister, there is a discussion within the Operations Directorate, where the material is processed once again. At this stage, the chief of staff rejoins the discussion and the plans are revised once again before they are presented to the defense minister. Operations do not pop up out of nowhere; they go through organized military bureaucracy, so half-baked or poorly planned operations do not get the go ahead.
The final barrier is the defense minister. This is a critical barrier, reflected in the experience of the man sitting in the minister's chair. The prime minister and defense minister have military experience, served in senior posts, understand military language, when you can and when you can't act, and can serve as an effective barrier to over-eagerness. Even Ariel Sharon and Ehud Barak, in their time known as being eager for military operations, often sent the army away to do its homework, gain intimate knowledge of the sector in which the operation was to be performed and the capabilities of the military.
Thus, actions are deferred and operations are put on the back burner, even when faced with an outstanding opportunity that may never again present itself. A case in point: The State of Israel lived for years with the tunnels dug from the Gaza Strip without feeling the need to embark on a military campaign to counter this threat. The achievement versus the price one pays is the determining factor. If the price you may pay is high in relation to the potential gain, you have to be experienced enough to forgo even the operational opportunity.
Here, too, the first question one needs to ask the individual who made the decision on the targeted killing is: What was the required achievement, and what price may the country to which the operation has been attributed have to pay for such a move? If the assassination was designed to prevent a missile attack on Tiberias tomorrow morning, then great work; and we should take our hats off to the people who made the decision.
But if anyone thought that the elimination of seven people could thwart the Iranian plan to set up a terrorist network on the Golan Heights, then we are dealing with a gross error of judgment. It is very safe to assume that the death of seven people will not affect Tehran's decision to open a second front on the Golan. Tehran does not view the death of the Iranian general as a leadership crisis. The intelligence lessons will be learned, and someone else will come to replace him.
Perhaps there was someone who couldn't resist the temptation and gave the go-ahead for the assassination operation in the hope that it would indeed halt the establishment of the terrorist infrastructure and thwart future attacks. Was the killing of the seven individuals the only way to neutralize this infrastructure?
For some reason, there's a sense among Israel's top-ranking military officials that we have an insurance policy against a conflagration in the north – a conception of sorts that determines that the Iranians, on the backdrop of the nuclear talks in Vienna and their efforts to make inroads with the United States and the West, have no interest today in a conflict with Israel. Hezbollah, too, as officials here like to say, is undergoing internal strife that is preventing the organization from opening a front with Israel and embroiling Lebanon, from which its draws its legitimacy to operate.
But Israel failed, too, to foresee Hamas' resolve to fight for 51 days. Apparently, we aren't that good at reading the behavior of the terrorist organizations in particular, and the Arab world in general. Perhaps the decision-makers were counting on the Iranians swallowing their pride and Hezbollah following in their wake and making do with a symbolic terror attack. Time will tell. In the meantime, everyone's sitting tight, while the benefits of the successful assassination operation remain unclear. On the other hand, the risk of escalation in the region has only increased.
In general, Israel of late has exhibited a tendency to adopt narrower safety margins than ever before. On December 7, a strike was carried out on Hezbollah ammunitions depots in area of the Damascus airport. The strike was attributed to the Israel Air Force. In contrast to similar operations in the past, for which Israel did not take responsibility, this strike was carried out in broad daylight, such that any passerby could have filmed the aircraft involved in the attack.
The excuse for the change in pattern was "an operational opportunity" and the message was: We do not believe you have the capability to respond, so we are taking higher risks than in the past; we don't need to keep things under wraps because our deterrence is sufficient. But such an approach is a risky business, and an indication of much self-confidence – for which there may be a very high price.
The tension in the north, the tanks, the closure of Old North Road, the mutual threats – all are in keeping with the mood of violence in other sectors. The one affects the other. The tension with Gaza is approaching boiling point too.
Election fuel on the fire
And as if all this weren't enough, the incendiary rhetoric of Israel's election campaign has entered the fray too. It turns out that the Palestinians take what the politicians say much more seriously than the Israeli public does. Hearing, far more so than in the past, statements by senior Israeli officials who do not recognize the Palestinians' right to a state or aren't in favor of a peace settlement with the Palestinians doesn't leave them with much hope at all.
Furthermore, the law enacted to raise the electoral threshold, born out of a desire to exclude some of the Arab nationalist movements from the parliamentary system, fans the flames in Israeli Arab society too.
The violent undercurrent in the various arenas is part of a mood in which Israel comes across as lacking in sufficient resolve. The deterrence offered by Israel's security forces – against both external and internal threats – is not at its best; and we can expect therefore to see an increase in incidents involving lone attackers who are not affiliated with any organized movement, like the one witnessed last week in Tel Aviv.
When will Israel decide that we are dealing with a threat that requires handling with a different set of tools? When it starts happening every week? Twice a week? Every day? Or perhaps they are waiting for someone to declare the third intifada officially open?