JERUSALEM – The explosive device that targeted an Israeli patrol in South Lebanon Monday without causing injuries had been anticipated since missiles fired by Israeli aircraft killed a Hezbollah figure named Samir Kuntar in a Damascus suburb two weeks ago.
Hezbollah is usually prompt in retaliating for Israeli attacks. Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s secretary-general, pledged three times publicly to take revenge after the death of Kuntar.
In Israel, this was seen as a need by Nasrallah to reassert himself and his militia as the spearhead of the battle against Israel, rather than as the principal ground force assisting President Bashir Assad’s army in their battle against Syrian rebels. The heavy price paid by Hezbollah fighters in Syria in the past four years has drawn considerable criticism inLebanon, even within Nasrallah’s Shiite community.
But Israeli observers predicted that Nasrallah would limit the extent of the retaliation because he cannot afford to get entangled in an ongoing exchange of blows with Israel with his militia over-extended in Syria. Observers also predicted the likely site for the retaliation—Mount Dov, a wooded area in south Lebanon that Israel captured in the Six Day War. It has been the area of Hezbollah attacks in the past, some of them successful, but the militia leadership reportedly regards it as less sensitive to Israel, and therefore less likely to draw a forceful Israeli response, because it is not sovereign Israeli territory and because there are no Israeli settlements there.
Israeli defense officials issued warnings last week of a strong response in the event of a Hezbollah attack. For several days last week, Israeli artillery struck known Hezbollah military positions in south Lebanon, all empty at the time, to back up the warning.
Last year, after Israeli rockets killed six Hezbollah fighters and six Iranian officers, including a general, who were reconnoitering the Golan border, Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli convoy on Mount Dov, killing two soldiers. Israel made clear that it would not seek a counter-move and that it regarded that round of killings as over. Hezbollah made no attempt afterwards to equalize the body counts.
Aware that Hezbollah may attempt a limited attack on Israeli patrols that regularly comb the Mount Dov area, the patrol that set out Monday morning to look for explosive devices or breaks in the fence was accompanied by a D-9 bulldozer and other armored vehicles which the foot soldiers kept between themselves and the border fence, for the most part. Thus it was that when a large explosive device went off at the fence, there were no casualties, according to the Israeli army spokesmen.
Hezbollah-affiliated media, however, wasted little time in describing how Hezbollah fighters had crossed the fence despite the high Israeli alert and the stormy weather prevailing. The Hezbollah leadership announced that that there had been Israeli casualties and damage to vehicles and that Samir Kuntar had been avenged.
Kuntar was part of a terrorist squad that infiltrated the town of Nahariya in Israel by boat from Lebanon in 1979 in an attempt to take hostages. He was convicted of killing an Israeli policeman and a local resident and his young daughter. What made Kuntar particularly reviled in Israel was the charge that he had killed the girl with the butt of his rifle, which he denied. He served in prison for almost 30 years before being released in a prisoner exchange. A defense official said that he was not targeted by Israel for that alleged offense, for which he had already served prison time, but because of his current alleged efforts to organize a Hezbollah militant cell for operations on the Golan Heights.