TYRE, Lebanon: The firing of a 122mm Katyusha rocket from south Lebanon into northern Israel, the first such incident in two years, was not unexpected given the tensions roiling Lebanon and Syria.
The border between Lebanon and Israel has long served as a means of sending messages, usually in the form of isolated rocket attacks that tend not to cause casualties or much damage but help ratchet up tensions.
Other than a handful of artillery rounds fired back into Lebanon in response, Israel appears content to play down the incident. Reports in the Israeli media quote Israeli military officials as ruling out Hezbollah’s involvement.
Since the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006, there have been at least five isolated incidents of rocket fire across the border. The first was in June 2007, an attack claimed by a previously unknown group calling itself Jihadi Badr Brigades – Lebanon Branch. Seven months later, Israel claimed that two rockets had struck Shelomi, but the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL found no evidence that rockets had been launched from Lebanese territory.
Israel’s offensive in Gaza between December 2008 and January 2009 spurred two attacks, one was thwarted when a local resident stumbled across the launcher and timer-equipped rockets primed for firing. The last two attacks occurred in September and October 2009.
UNIFIL and the Lebanese army conduct regular “rocket watch” patrols in areas from where Katyushas have been launched in the past. But Monday’s attack demonstrates just how easy it is to smuggle rockets into the border district and fire them into Israel. The Lebanese Army discovered the launch site in a small valley just south of Ain Ibl. The launcher reportedly was a simple wooden platform similar to those used in previous isolated Katyusha attacks. Katyushas are designed to be fired from tubed launchers, but militants often use cruder low-signature platforms such as crossed sticks or even leaning them against rocks.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an Al-Qaeda-inspired organization with a branch in Lebanon, claimed responsibility for the attack. The Brigades also took responsibility for the September 2009 cross-border firing when a 122mm Katyusha was launched from the vicinity of Qlayle on the coast south of Tyre and landed near Nahariyah in northern Israel.
The group’s two claimed attacks are the only ones since 2006 involving 122mm Katyushas, the standard rocket used by Hezbollah in the 1990s which have a range of 20 kilometers. All the other attacks involved the smaller 107mm version, which have a range of around 12 kilometers.
Hezbollah has an interest in maintaining a degree of control over the Lebanon-Israel border, knowing that it risks bearing the brunt of “unauthorized” actions by other groups. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which follows the austere Salafi brand of Sunni Islam, is an avowed enemy of Hezbollah and has attacked the party in statements on several occasions.
Last month, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades released the seventh installment in a series entitled “May the Path of Criminals Be Revealed” in which it praised the uprising in Syria against the regime of President Bashar Assad. It also demanded that jihadist groups operating in the Levant and in Sinai increase their attacks against Israel.
It is in the nature of such incidents – rockets sailing across the border into Israel or roadside bomb attacks against UNIFIL – that the identity of the perpetrator remains murky. Little is known about the Abdullah Azzam Brigades in Lebanon, despite their claimed operations and regular statements broadcast on the internet. While it seems evident that the turmoil engulfing Syria has created the climate for such attacks, it remains unclear whether the rocket firing was carried out on explicit Syrian orders or was an autonomous jihadist group taking advantage of the uncertain regional situation.
Neither Hezbollah nor Israel has an interest in an escalation at this time. Hezbollah is embroiled in domestic issues such as the debate over the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon as well as eyeing with unease developments in Syria. Israel is having to readjust to the realities of a new Middle East, one in which the strategic alignments of the past three decades are being redrawn, not necessarily in the Jewish state’s favor.
However, given that Monday’s attack is unlikely to be the last, the real danger lies in the possibility of one of these poorly aimed rockets actually causing casualties in Israel.
Casualties tend to be Israel’s red line and even if Hezbollah continues to be spared any blame for future attacks, a forceful response by Israel could provide the spark for an escalation that nobody wants.
UNIFIL’s role as interlocutor between the Lebanese and Israelis will remain critical to helping perpetuate the calm along the Blue Line.