BEIRUT: On the morning of July 20, 2004, two Israeli soldiers climbed onto the roof of a border outpost opposite the village of Aita Shaab to fix a broken antenna. Moments later, they were both dead, killed by three shots – two to the head and one to the chest – fired by a Hezbollah sniper in a camouflaged observation post some 500 meters away.
An Israeli tank fired a round at the sniper, killing him, and Israeli helicopters then attacked a Hezbollah observation post on Jabal Blat, four kilometers west of Aita al-Shaab. But Hezbollah’s point had been made. The shooting of the two soldiers was a response to the assassination of Ghaleb Awali, a top cadre who died the previous day in a car bomb explosion in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
But Thursday, more than 24 hours after the killing of Hassan Hawlo Lakkis, a top Hezbollah military commander, the United Nations-delineated Blue Line was calm, even as Israeli soldiers went on alert in anticipation of trouble. Like with Awali nine years ago, Hezbollah instantly blamed Israel for Lakkis’ assassination. But unlike nine years ago, the dynamics between Hezbollah and Israel have changed along the Blue Line, dampening the prospects of an overt retaliation for Lakkis’ death.
Between May 2000 when Israeli troops withdrew from south Lebanon and July 2006 when war broke out with Israel, Hezbollah developed a finely tuned set of rules in which the Blue Line became the locus of retaliation to Israeli actions in Lebanon and elsewhere. The purpose was to bolster Hezbollah’s deterrence posture as well as to needle the Israelis and keep them on edge along the border. The first tit-for-tat operation was in December 2002 when a roadside bomb exploded on the border wounding two Israeli soldiers a day after Ramzi Nohra, a former agent for Hezbollah and Lebanese military intelligence, was killed in a roadside bomb blast almost certainly carried out by Israel.
By the time Awali was killed in Haret Hreik 20 months later, Hezbollah had honed the tactic to the extent that a specific order from the leadership to retaliate was not even required. The cadres serving along the southern border automatically began looking out for targets of opportunity to exact revenge. The targets turned out to be the two hapless Israeli soldiers.
Since 2006, the Blue Line has been quiet. Only two violent incidents have ruffled the calm – the ambush of Israeli soldiers at Labboune in August this year and the shooting of an Israeli army officer near Adaisseh in August 2010. Even the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s former military leader, passed without an overt act of vengeance.
Hezbollah’s investigation into Lakkis’ murder is examining the possibility that Sunni jihadists may have been responsible, even though that is not a scenario the party believes is likely. The two claims of responsibility from previously unknown Sunni groups are most likely fake. A similar claim was made after Awali’s death when a statement purportedly from Jund ash-Sham said it killed the Hezbollah militant. It took a leader of the group in Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp to get on the phone to Al-Jazeera to clarify that Jund ash-Sham was not responsible and to blame the U.S. Embassy for the fake claim.
The manner of the assassination and the target itself point to Israeli involvement. Israel has a pattern of assassinating Hezbollah cadres – when they can find them – that pose a relevant and immediate threat. Awali and Ali Saleh, who was killed in near identical circumstances to Awali in southern Beirut in August 2003, were both closely involved in supporting Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at the height of the Al-Aqsa intifada. Hezbollah’s support role for various Palestinian factions was frequently brought up in the Israeli media and a source of frustration for the Israeli government and military. It is no coincidence that Awali and Saleh were killed during that period.
Similarly, after the 2006 war, Israel’s chief concern with Hezbollah has been its acquisition of advanced weapons, such as more effective anti-aircraft weapons and longer-range rockets and anti-ship missiles. Mughniyeh, as top Hezbollah commander, was always a sought-after target regardless of his daily duties. But six months after Mughniyeh’s assassination, Mohammad Suleiman, a top Syrian official who served as a liaison to Hezbollah and oversaw the transfer of weapons to the party among other sensitive files, was killed in Tartous, allegedly by an Israeli sniper.
This year, Israel reportedly has struck arms depots and convoys in Syria on at least five occasions, apparently targeting consignments of advanced weapons awaiting transit to Hezbollah. Among Lakkis’ duties as reported in the media was the procurement of weapons systems and overseeing Hezbollah’s research and development operations. In the context of Israel’s continuing efforts to thwart Hezbollah’s acquisition of improved weapons and technology, Lakkis’ role would make him a prime target for Israel.
Sources close to Hezbollah say that the cadres are clamoring for a response to Lakkis’ assassination. But if the post-2006 war period is anything to go by, the likelihood of a direct retaliation from Lebanon is remote. Yet, Hezbollah is passing through unprecedented times given its intervention in Syria’s civil war and the blowback in Lebanon this year in the form of car bombings, rocket attacks and roadside ambushes. One could justifiably argue that Hezbollah has too much on its plate to risk an escalation with Israel by carrying out a retaliation, even a deniable operation, but it would be rash to bet the house on such an assumption.