BEIRUT: The mysterious airstrike a week ago by Israeli pilotless drones against a vehicle near Hader village in the northern Golan Heights remains an unexplained oddity in the simmering conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
Differing reports regarding the number of casualties and identity of the target are still irreconcilable.
Until now, three Syrian fighters with the National Defense Force militia have been identified as victims of the July 29 airstrike.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that two Hezbollah men also died in the drone strike, although there has been no confirmation from the party.
Rumors that Samir Qantar, the Druze militant who spent 29 years in an Israeli jail before being released in a 2008 prisoner swap, had been the main target of the attack appear to be unfounded.
A close relative of Qantar living at his home in Abay in the Aley district confirmed to The Daily Star that he was alive and well.
Qantar is reportedly in charge of mobilizing Druze fighters in southern Syria, under the auspices of Hezbollah, to confront Syrian rebel factions operating in the area and to serve as an anti-Israel resistance in the Golan. He has been linked to several small-scale attacks over the past 18 months against Israeli troops along the line of separation in the Golan Heights.
The presence of Qantar in the Golan would certainly make for a tempting target for Israel. Qantar was jailed by an Israeli court in 1979 to 542 years in prison for his alleged role in the deaths of an Israeli father and daughter during a raid on Nahariyah in northern Israel.
Qantar was released in July 2008 in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah two years earlier, an incident that sparked the 2006 war with Israel.
His release was widely protested in Israel. An anonymous Israeli defense official was quoted by Israel’s Yediot Ahronot as saying that Qantar was a “dead man walking ... Israel will eliminate him.”
The area around the Druze village of Hader in the Golan has seen repeated clashes lately between Syrian rebel groups, including the Nusra Front, Syria’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, and the pro-Assad NDF militia.
Security sources confirmed that there was drone activity on the morning of July 29 in the northern Golan.
However, no drones were spotted crossing the Alpha Line that marks the eastern edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan to launch the strike against the vehicle.
Hader lies in a narrow peninsula of territory that juts west into the demilitarized zone separating Israeli and Syrian forces which is patrolled by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force.
Given the range of the various missiles fired by Israeli drones and Hader’s proximity to Israeli-occupied territory, there would have been no need to cross the Alpha Line to carry out the attack against the target vehicle.
UNDOF did not witness the attack on the vehicle in Hader, although the sounds of explosions could be heard during that morning which are thought to have been exchanges of mortar fire.
Some published analyses claim that Hezbollah played down the attack to prevent becoming entangled anew with the Israelis at a time when it is concentrating efforts on seizing the town of Zabadani.
However, such a move would be uncharacteristic of Hezbollah which has shown little hesitation over the past 18 months in avenging attacks against its personnel when it was equally busy with fighting in Syria. They include a roadside bomb ambush in the Shebaa Farms in October 2014 in retaliation for the death of a Hezbollah engineer while dismantling a booby-trapped Israeli wiretapping device in Adloun.
In January, Hezbollah killed two Israeli soldiers in an anti-tank missile attack 10 days after an Israeli drone strike in the Golan which killed Jihad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah commander, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Mohammed Allahdadi and four other fighters.
Regardless of the identity of the real target of the July 29 drone attack in the Golan, Israel has demonstrated that the assassinations of Mughniyeh and Allahdadi in January were not a one-off exceptional incident.
The apparent lack of high-profile fatalities in the July 29 attack deterred a new escalation in the Golan. But the possibility of further similar attacks remains high given the Israeli government’s strong opposition to the recent agreement between Iran and international powers on the former’s nuclear program.
Targeting its enemies on the Golan would allow Israel to remind the world that Iran and Hezbollah remain an enduring threat to the Jewish state. However, each action by Israel on the Golan risks a retaliation which will once again test the durability of the mutual deterrence between Israel and Hezbollah that has helped prevent the outbreak of another war for nine years.