Northern Border: Rocket Attacks a Sign of the Times

The recent flare up on the Lebanese border was in actuality, an example of the highly volatile manner in which Israel and its enemies communicate.

Daniel NIsman

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Early this week, residents of Israel's western Galilee were awoken by blasts caused by four rockets which landed near the shared border with Lebanon.

Exactly which town was struck was not immediately announced by Israeli media, probably in accordance with military procedure of not confirming direct hits for rocket launching squads across the border.  The rockets themselves were of the short range Katuysha type, hitting close to the border, causing some property damage and no injuries.

Unlike Israel's south, the Lebanese border has been relatively quiet, despite the presence of a number of militant groups who operate south of the Litani River. These factions vary in their religious and political ideologies, as well as their operational capability. Hizbullah is by far the most powerful of the groups, and boasts the capability to simultaneously launch hundreds of rockets as far south as the city of Dimona at nearly a moment's notice. Other, less capable groups include Palestinian and Global Jihad factions, many of which have small arsenals of short range rockets, and have been blamed for similar flare-ups in the past.

This attack was in no way a fluke. Unlike the Gaza strip, any attack on Israel from Lebanon is perpetrated after considerable calculation by a number of parties, including Hizbullah which controls southern Lebanon, and its backers in Iran and Syria. These parties understand that a serious provocation could result in an even broader conflict which would result widespread damage across Lebanon, far greater than that inflicted in the 2006 second Lebanon War.  

This attack was in no way a fluke.
Despite the relative calm in Israel's north, localized flare-ups have occurred over the years, often times drawing a similar Israeli response in the form of symbolic artillery barrages into open areas.  Many of these attacks have coincided with events concerning the Palestinians, either in the territories or elsewhere in the region. During Israel's Operation Cast Lead, several rockets were fired in the western Galilee, again drawing a limited Israeli response. 

It is no coincidence that the relative calm in the north was shattered just hours after another mysterious explosion rocked a strategically important Iranian city. The blast in Esfahan, a hub of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program was the latest in what is perceived to be an enhanced sabotage campaign by western spy agencies following the latest critical report by the IAEA.

Syria meanwhile, has recently threatened retaliation against Israel and Jordan over the killing of six air force pilots by insurgents in a raid which took place near Homs earlier this week. It is no secret that both Syria and Iran wield considerable influence of both Shia and Sunni militants in southern Lebanon, providing them with logistical, monetary, and ideological support.

More than most, Hizbullah has long been open about its close alliance with Iran, stating numerous times that an attack on the Iranian nuclear program would result in an escalation with Israel.

Despite these close ties, it is unlikely that Hizbullah was directly responsible for the recent attack. Domestically, the group's political wing is facing the worst political crisis since it took power, with the March 14 opposition taking aim not only at its pro-Assad policies, but its insistence on maintaining its private army.

Amin Gemayel, a prominent opposition Christian figure recently lashed out at Hizbullah, claiming that their "resistance" approach was no longer viable legitimizing their need for such a well armed militia. Similar statements by other political figures signal that such sentiment is rapidly spreading among the Lebanese population, meaning that Hizbullah itself would have an especially difficult time justifying another conflict with Israel in the name of "resistance".

The Syrians and Iranians understand Hizbullah's military card is severely limited by its precarious domestic situation, yet still need an outlet from which to send a warning message to the Israelis. Palestinian and Sunni militant groups provide the most convenient option. These groups have taken credit for past attacks along the border, and their particularly extremist ideology creates the façade that they do consider the consequences of such an attack on regional stability. The Syrian conflict has caused many of these groups to return to Lebanon from their bases in that country, and the recent attack is preceded by a flux in inter-faction violence in Palestinian refugee camps over the past weeks.  

Given its limited scope, the flare up on the Lebanese border was in actuality, an example of the highly volatile way in which Israel and its enemies communicate.

The fact that the attack was small in both scale and range, signals that the Iranians and Syrians seek to warn the state of Israel that its operations to undermine Iranian or Syrian aspirations will not go unchecked. Israel's limited response as well, was meant to send a message that it will retaliate for any provocation, but yet does not seek a major conflict.  

As in past flare-ups, Lebanese militias will not likely respond, a message to Israel that they too do not seek a large conflict.  Hizbullah in the meantime, is likely to keep its military option hidden in its many bunkers for the time being, unleashing it only when it senses a substantial threat to its position of power in Lebanon, or at the behest of its Iranian puppet masters.

(sent to Arutz Sheva by the author)