The persisting status quo between Hezbollah and Israel

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On December 19, 2015, Samir Kantar, a prominent Hezbollah member, was killed by an alleged Israeli airstrike on his apartment in a suburb of Damascus, Syria. The Lebanese Shia party accused Israel and vowed revenge for the death of its senior operative. On January 4th the armed organization retaliated by attacking an Israeli convoy on Lebanon’s southern border, although apparently inflicting limited damage. It is still unknown if Hezbollah will carry out another attack as a response, but so far, an all-out confrontation between the two sides has once again been avoided, confirming a persisting status quo amidst the Syrian war and wider tensions in the Middle East.

One year after their last military confrontation in January 2015, Hezbollah and Israel resorted to arms once again, in what is clearly a consequence of the Syrian war. The trigger behind this new escalation occurred on the night of December 19, 2015, in Jaramana, a suburb of the Syrian capital Damascus. Samir Kantar, a high-ranking Lebanese figure within Hezbollah, aged 54, was killed in an unconfirmed  airstrike on the apartment he was renting there.

After spending 28 years in Israeli prisons, Samir Kantar was released in 2008 in a prisoner and body swap between the Shia party and Israel. Shortly after, he joined the ranks of the “Resistance”.  According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the man became the head of the “Syrian resistance for the liberation of the Golan”. A portion of the Golan heights, which Syria claims to be its territory, has been occupied by Israel since 1967.[1]

The task that Kantar had been assigned seems to have been considered a red line for Israel, in case it is behind the assassination. Israel could not accept the creation of a new front against its homeland. According to some experts, Iran could be supporting this attempt in order to assert its presence and influence in Syria, and to pose a direct military threat to Israel.[2] Retired Lebanese general Elias Hanna, a specialist in strategic studies, told the International Security Observer (ISO) that “if there is a will to open a new front in the Golan Heights, Hezbollah and Iran could pursue their plans, despite the killing of Samir Kantar”.

A déjà vu 

Kantar’s death had consequences in neighboring Lebanon. On the same day, three Katyusha rockets were fired from southern Lebanon (a Hezbollah stronghold) into northern Israel. Tel Aviv fired back, shelling southern Lebanese villages, without inflicting casualties. Israel did not claim responsibility for Kantar’s death, although it greeted the news with relief.[3] Soon after the operation, an obscure brigade claiming to be affiliated with the Free Syrian Army said it carried out the attack in an unverified video.[4]

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah dismissed these claims and held Israel responsible. Threatening three times with retaliation during televised speeches following Kantar’s death, Nasrallah kept his promise when his men attacked an Israeli patrol on January 4, 2016 with a roadside bomb in the Shebaa Farms sector, a territory claimed by Lebanon and occupied by Israel.

The operation was claimed by the “Samir Kantar group”. The Shia party announced that it had inflicted several human and material losses to their enemy.[5] The Israeli military confirmed the attack, but said that it inflicted no human losses. Nonetheless, Israel said it considers the attack “very seriously”.[6] It retaliated on the same day, firing artillery shells against southern Lebanese villages. Local news sources also confirmed that the attack also had not caused casualties.[7]

This tit for tat action is a déjà vu of what occurred exactly one year earlier. In January 2015, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol, with a guided missile, as a response to the killing of several of its senior members in Syria by an Israeli airstrike, amongst whom was Jihad Mughniyeh, son of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, also killed in Syria in 2008 in mysterious circumstances. However, Hezbollah’s attack on the patrol inflicted serious damage. Two soldiers were killed and seven others injured.[8] “Imad and Jihad Mughniyeh were more important figures of the Shia party than Kantar was. He only joined the party in 2008 and had an agenda focused on Palestine,” argues General Hanna.

European warnings

Comparing the January 2015 attack with this year’s, it is evident that the impact of Hezbollah’s more recent response has been less harmful. “What is important is that the attack occurred in an area heavily monitored by the Israeli military”, notes Scarlett Haddad, a Lebanese journalist, in an interview with ISO. “They thought their surveillance system was impeccable, which was not the case,” she adds. “Hezbollah showed that it was capable of striking when and where it wants,” adds General Hanna.

What has not changed is that both sides kept their military actions limited. Samir Kantar’s death is surely a loss for Hezbollah. However, the organization did not launch an all-out war with its foes like it did in July 2006. The party is sending troops to Syria to support the regime of president Bashar al-Assad, which is putting a strain on its capabilities elsewhere. Foreign powers also seem willing to prevent an escalation in Lebanon, at a time when the whole region has become a tinderbox. According the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas, European diplomats warned Lebanese authorities about Israel’s intentions to retaliate with force if Hezbollah decides to escalate the situation[9].

The war in Syria seems to reinforce the status quo that dictates Hezbollah-Israeli relations. Both sides appear to have set red lines for their rules of engagement (despite Hassan Nasrallah saying otherwise in his speeches), where both want to avoid an open war. “These rules of engagement can change according to the developments on the ground. However, they will not affect the status quo that both sides are benefiting from”, underlines General Hanna.

Back in January 2015, Hezbollah scored points by proving that Israel cannot attack it without paying a price. The Shia formation considered its response as a solid deterrent against further Israeli attacks. However, it was proven wrong when Samir Kantar was killed, and this might encourage Israel to believe it can target Hezbollah with relative impunity.[10]

Deterrence balance

Despite the January 4, 2016 attack, some analysts still consider that Israel has yet to see the last of Hezbollah’s full response to Samir Kantar’s death[11]. Was the Shia party only undertaking a reconnaissance operation when it targeted the Israeli patrol that day? Will it strike with more force soon? On January 7, Hezbollah’s parliamentary group said that the party’s retaliation confirms the deterrence balance between the Shia formation and Israel. This message can be interpreted as a confirmation that the military organization considered the attack a sufficient response and will not carry another one to avenge Samir Kantar’s death.“For Hezbollah, the equation is: less than a war, but more than an average resistance operation”, says Scarlett Haddad.

The killing of Samir Kantar, and its aftermath, were a result of calculated risks by both Hezbollah and Israel in a region that is increasingly volatile. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria and the rise of jihadi movements in the region, there is a confirmation that some sort of red lines are not to be crossed between Hezbollah and Israel in order to avoid a full-blown escalation.

If Hezbollah’s retaliation was meant to send a symbolic message to its partisans and to Israel, that the party will not sit idly by when attacked, then the mission was accomplished. However, if it intended to inflict losses on the Israeli Defense Forces, then the operation was a clear failure.


[1] L’Orient-Le Jour, “Samir Kantar tué dans un raid aérien attribué à Israël près de Damas”, December 20, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/961202/samir-kantar-tue-dans-un-raid-aerien-israelien-pres-de-damas.html

[2] Al-Monitor, Ali Hashem, “How will Nasrallah retaliate for death of Hezbollah leader in Syria?”, December 22, 2015, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/12/syria-samir-kuntar-israel-hezbollah.html#

[3] L’Orient-Le Jour, “Samir Kantar tué dans un raid aérien attribué à Israël près de Damas”, op. cit.

[4] YouTube, “Al-Jaych al-Souri al-Horr Yatabanna Ightiyal Samir al-Kantar” (The Free Syrian Army claims responsibility for the assassination of Samir Kantar), uploaded by Akhbarrom on December 21 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw8bjAVj1lU

[5] ABC News, Brian Rohan, “Hezbollah Attacks Israeli Troops on Lebanon Border”, January 4, 2016, http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/lebanons-hezbollah-tv-reports-attack-israeli-forces-36078787

[6] Le Monde, “Une patrouille israélienne visée par un engin explosif du Hezbollah à la frontière libanaise”, January 4, 2016, http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2016/01/04/une-patrouille-israelienne-visee-par-un-engin-explosif-du-hezbollah-a-la-frontiere-libanaise_4841437_3218.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] L’Orient-Le Jour, “Attaque à la frontière : Devant l’ONU, Israël affirme “son droit à la légitime défense” contre le Hezbollah”, January 28, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/908487/un-vehicule-militaire-israelien-touche-par-un-missile-a-la-frontiere-avec-le-liban.html

[9] Al-Qabas, “Mana’ou Hezballah Min al-Tha’r Fal tahdidat al-Isra’iliyya Jaddiya” (They impeached Hezbollah from taking revenge because Israeli threats were serious), December 26, 2015, http://www.alqabas.com.kw/Articles.aspx?ArticleID=1122475&CatID=323

[10] L’Orient-Le Jour, Scarlett Haddad, “Assassinat de Kantar : le Hezbollah a déjà choisi la riposte, mais attend le bon timing”, December 31, 2015, http://www.lorientlejour.com/article/962714/assassinat-de-kantar-le-hezbollah-a-deja-choisi-la-riposte-mais-attend-le-bon-timing.html

[11] As-Safir, “Aamaliyat Chebaa Touhayyer Isra’il : Al-Moukawama Lam Takol Kalimatiha al-Akhira (The Shebaa operation puzzles Israel : The Resistance has not said its final word), January 6, 2016, http://assafir.com/Article/1/465347

Photo credit: A file picture taken on July 16, 2008, shows Lebanese Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (R) speaking next to freed Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar (L) at a stadium in Beirut’s southern suburbs. (AFP PHOTO/MUSSA AL-HUSSEINI)

About Author

Matthieu Karam

Matthieu Karam is a contributor to the International Security Observer (ISO). He is a web journalist at the French-speaking Lebanese newspaper L’Orient-Le Jour in Beirut. Karam holds a Master‘s degree from the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences Po, with a focus on Intelligence and the Middle East, and a BA in Political and Administrative Sciences from Université Saint Joseph (USJ) in Beirut. He has interned at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where he worked on the Syrian crisis focusing on grassroots movements and military brigades. He also interned for several Lebanese ministries and participated in the launch of a Lebanese observatory of international conflicts in the Arab world. Karam is a native French and Arabic speaker, fluent in English, with an elementary knowledge of German.

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