BEIRUT: Conflicting reports from Israel and Syria Wednesday over an apparent attempt to stage a roadside bomb ambush against Israeli troops in the Golan Heights underlines that this long-stagnant front line has the potential to become a new limited theater of conflict between Israel and Hezbollah.
According to news reports in Israel, Israeli army scouts at around 6 a.m. spotted two Hezbollah men who had crossed the Armistice Demarcation Line which marks the eastern limit of Israeli-occupied territory in the Golan, and were approaching the security fence. The alert was given and tank fire was directed at the Hezbollah men.
“Earlier today, 2 Hezbollah terrorists tried to plant an explosive near Syria border. IDF [ Israel Defense Force] forces fired at the suspects and confirmed direct hits,” the Israeli army later said in a Twitter feed.
The Israeli military set up a checkpoint near the settlement of Merom Golan to prevent local people from approaching the area and monitored the explosive device which apparently was left beside the fence.
But the Syrian authorities offered an alternative account. Syria’s state-run SANA news agency quoted a military source as saying that the Israeli tanks shelled a school and mosque in the village of Hamidiyah, which lies less than a kilometer from the ADL, wounding seven members of the Syrian security forces and four civilians.
A key unanswered question over the incident is how the Israeli soldiers were able to identify the two men specifically as Hezbollah fighters. One diplomatic source said that information indicated that the two men were in fact Syrian soldiers and not Hezbollah fighters. Although it was equally unclear why Syrian troops, who have been busy battling rebels in the area in the past month, would attempt to stage a roadside bomb ambush against Israeli soldiers on routine patrols of the security fence.
Last year, Israel installed a new 5-meter high security fence the length of the Golan Heights in response to emerging threats from Syria in light of the civil war. The fence is similar in design to the barrier along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon,incorporating multiple sensors such as motion detectors and cameras. There have been several incidents of small arms fire and mortar rounds impacting on the Israeli-occupied side of the ADL in the past two years, usually interpreted by the Israelis as unintentional overspill from clashes between the Syrian army and rebel forces in the Golan.
However, there was one previous roadside bomb attack in December when an Israeli patrol was struck by an explosive device planted on the Syrian side of the security fence in the northern Golan near Mount Hermon. No casualties were reported in that incident and there was no claim of responsibility.
Last week, Israeli jets attacked an as yet unknown Hezbollah target near Janta in the eastern Bekaa Valley, an unprecedented act since the end of the monthlong war in 2006. It took Hezbollah 36 hours to decide to publicly respond to the Israeli airstrike. It vowed retaliation but “in the time, place and way it sees appropriate.”
Hezbollah could have chosen to remain silent on the Israeli airstrike, following the pattern set by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad which for the most part has ignored Israel’s undeclared air attacks against suspected consignments of advanced weapons across Syria over the past year.
Initially, Al-Manar said there had been no air raid on Lebanese territory, and, as the location lies inside a sealed-off Hezbollah military zone, no independent party could check exactly where and what was hit.
The fact that Hezbollah took the step of admitting that Israel had struck one of its facilities suggests the party has decided to stage a form of retaliation to preserve the balance of terror between it and Israel and make the Israeli authorities think long and hard before carrying out any future strikes on Lebanese soil.
The question for Hezbollah, however, is how to respond with sufficient strength to sustain the balance of terror without over-reaching and sparking a tit-for-tat escalation that could have unwanted repercussions.
The United Nations-delineated Blue Line served this purpose between 2000 and 2006 for “open” operations in the Shebaa Farms and “deniable” attacks elsewhere along the boundary.
But since the 2006 war, the Blue Line has been calm and even Hezbollah’s periodic “reminder” operations in the Shebaa Farms have not resumed. A “qualitative” Hezbollah attack in the Shebaa Farms (such as a roadside bomb ambush on one of the supply routes to an Israeli outpost) cannot be ruled out as a retaliation for the airstrike.
But perhaps the safer locus of retaliation is the Golan Heights front. The current situation along the ADL with the Israeli-occupied Golan offers Hezbollah potential opportunities to stage roadside bomb ambushes or attacks with anti-tank missiles, mortars or snipers similar to the operations it carried out along the Blue Line before 2006. Such attacks afford Hezbollah some deniability while keeping Israel on edge and with no clear return address.
Wednesday’s incident on the Golan near Hamidiyah is too clouded with contradiction to determine with any confidence that Hezbollah was behind the attempt to plant a bomb or that this was intended to be the promised retaliation for the Feb. 24 airstrike.
But it does come five days after two Grad rockets landed near an Israeli outpost on the Golan Heights, an unclaimed attack that was the first of its kind since the Syria war began and therefore sparked speculation that Hezbollah was responsible.