BEIRUT: The roadside bomb ambush against Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms Friday, the first attack in the occupied mountainside since the end of the 2006 war, lends further weight to speculation that Hezbollah has decided to resume operations against Israeli targets, albeit in a cautious and deniable manner.
Hezbollah has made no comment on Friday’s roadside bomb attack near Bastara, at the southern end of the Shebaa Farms mountainside, but there is no other group that realistically could have carried it out.
It was reported that the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Greater Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took responsibility for the attack, but the claim should not be treated seriously. Whenever Sunni jihadist groups, such as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, launch attacks against Israeli targets, their preferred method is to fire rockets across the border into Israel, not to stage operations in the Shebaa Farms.
Furthermore, it is most unlikely that ISIS’ combatants have the capability to penetrate the mountainside undetected by the Lebanese Army, UNIFIL and the Israeli military to a sufficient depth to reach the roads patrolled by Israeli troops and successfully plant and detonate a roadside bomb.
The closest Israeli patrol road to the old farmstead at Bastara is 900 meters to the east, the other side of a steep wooded ravine, within view of the Israeli outpost on the Ramta hill and close to Israel’s Zebdine position. Hezbollah has the experience to carry out infiltrations of that kind and in this area; ISIS does not.
Despite Hezbollah’s past history in the Shebaa Farms, it is telling that of the approximately 23 attacks staged by the party against Israeli troops in the area between October 2000 and July 2006, only four were roadside bomb operations, and three of those were close to the Blue Line, on the edge of the Shebaa Farms. The only in-depth roadside bomb attack occurred in January 2005, near the Israeli outpost in Zebdine, perhaps not coincidentally the same area as Friday’s bomb ambush.
Still, despite the fact that the Shebaa Farms have remained calm since 2006, an attack in the area was not entirely unexpected. The Daily Star recently raised the possibility that Hezbollah could stage a roadside bomb attack against Israeli troops in the Shebaa Farms as part of its retaliation for Israel’s airstrike last month against a Hezbollah facility in Janta, in the eastern Bekaa Valley.
The Israeli army was put on a heightened state of alert following the Feb. 24 airstrike on Janta, in anticipation of a potential retaliation from Hezbollah, who vowed to respond.
On March 5, Israeli troops opened fire at three men approaching Israel’s security fence in the Golan Heights. Israel claimed the three fighters were “affiliated to Hezbollah” and were attempting to plant a roadside bomb to target Israeli patrols alongside the fence. A few days earlier, two Grad rockets exploded near an Israeli outpost on Mount Hermon, an attack Israel has blamed on Hezbollah even though there was no claim of responsibility.
On Dec. 6, an Israeli vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb in the northern Golan Heights in another unclaimed attack, although this one came just three days after the assassination of Hassan Lakkis, a top Hezbollah commander.
Before the 2006 war, the Shebaa Farms theater was tacitly understood by both sides to be a legitimate zone of conflict that allowed Hezbollah to take responsibility for each attack with a media statement. After the 2006 war, Hezbollah chose not to resume its “reminder” operations against the Israeli occupiers of the Shebaa Farms, presumably so as not to provide Israel with any excuse to launch another war against Lebanon.
But the recent incidents in the Golan Heights and now the Shebaa Farms hint at the emergence of a new strategy by Hezbollah to strike at Israeli military targets in retaliation for Israeli attacks against the party’s interests, in a fashion that allows not only for deniability but also ambiguity, ensuring against a strong Israeli backlash that could provoke an unwanted escalation of violence.
Following the alleged bomb-planting mission on March 5, an Israeli military source told AFP: “We believe that the confrontations with Hezbollah will continue over the upcoming days.”
What remains to be seen is whether Hezbollah considers the latest roadside bombing in the Shebaa Farms sufficient to satisfy its vow of retaliation for the Janta airstrike or whether further anonymous attacks can be expected in the coming days, weeks and months.