This article was written before the tragic explosion in Beirut.
When 4 unknown militants planted an explosive device on Israel’s border with Syria in the southern Golan Heights late Saturday night, the Israeli military responded in precisely the way we have come to expect. This article will analyse the key differences between Saturday’s event and a similar one in Har Dov, involving Hezbollah, just one week prior.
Strike to Kill
On August 1, a mere 25 meters from the Syrian border fence inside Israeli territory, four militants planted an explosive device. They were eliminated immediately by an Israeli air strike, launched precisely as IDF special forces opened fire.
While the identity of the militants from the attack on the Syrian border remains unknown, the IDF is certain they are unrelated to Hezbollah. This strike was practically risk-free, from Israel’s perspective, since Israel knows it can act with a free hand in war-torn Syria without running the risk of a response from Damascus. Syria’s various factions thus rarely attempt to attack Israel directly, even as they enter the 10th year of the civil war, as they understand the harsh response Israel would hand them if they tried.
Meanwhile, on the Lebanese border, Hezbollah militants attempted their own attack in the area of Har Dov on July 27. Israeli forces, monitoring the militants, were instructed to avoid killing them by IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi. The forces thwarted the militants’ attempt to infiltrate Israel by shooting near them, causing them to flee back into Lebanese territory.
Hezbollah’s deterrence equation promises a harsh response for even a single Hezbollah member’s death, if caused by Israel. Knowledge of this equation caused Israel to calculate the risk of a deadly response to Hezbollah’s operation, which would have further increased the tensions with the organization. Disrupting the attack bloodlessly, rather than annihilating the Hezbollah operatives operating on the Lebanese border (as was done on the Syrian border less than a week later), was an attempt by the IDF to preserve calm in the area. However Hezbollah remains adamant that news of the attack in Har Dov was fabricated by the IDF. Hezbollah have yet to respond to the death of their member, Ali Mohsen, who was killed in Syria during an IDF strike on July 20th.
Social Media Hype
In record breaking speed, the IDF released footage of the visual identification of the 4 militants on the Syrian border, and the subsequent strike on their position. The footage was released just hours after the militants had finished planting an IED near the fence. The footage was released on all of the IDF’s social media accounts, including their Persian language accounts.
While footage of the incident with Hezbollah in Har Dov exists, the IDF is not releasing it, as it did following the Syrian border incident. Instead, it is waiting for the situation to return to relative calm before posting it. The footage shows the failed attack and the militants fleeing back into Lebanon. Given the current tensions, this humiliating footage would likely only anger Hezbollah more, perhaps causing a more serious retaliation and resulting in further instability in the area.
In the late hours of August 3, the IDF struck a Syian Army base south of Damascus in response to the failed IED attack, though the 4 militants already mentioned had already been killed. Israeli policy dictates that type of response, barring other factors (like Hezbollah’s deterrence capabilities). This policy likely exists both as a demonstration of the IDF’s own deterrence capabilities and to establish that the IDF remains capable of striking at will in Syria should any Syrian faction attempt to draw Israel into a broader fight.
The August 3 strike targeted “observation posts and intelligence collection systems, anti-aircraft artillery facilities, and command and control systems”, according to the Israeli military’s spokesperson. As mentioned prior, the risk of Syria responding towards Israel is practically non-existent; thus Israel felt free to enact their policy regarding forceful responses to attacks, while responding to Hezbollah remains another story. The motivation to demonstrate deterrence in Syria is less useful in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has built up a significant stockpile of asymmetric warfare capabilities.
During the failed attack in Har Dov, after all, the Israeli forces purposely avoided harming the attackers, and even chose not to respond with force towards Lebanon. The IDF has stated many times that Lebanon and Syria will be responsible for attacks emanating from their territory, but this seems to be true only when the risk of a deterioration of the broader situation is minimal.
We can expect the Israeli military to continue their policy of thwarting attacks and holding the respectful sovereign power responsible, provided it won’t result in a war. Another Hezbollah attempt to attack Israel appears inevitable, as they continue to vow retaliation for the death of Ali Mohsen even now. However, given the large reinforcements of troops in northern Israel and Israeli leaders’ direct threats warning Hezbollah not to “test [Israel]” lest they “meet a very high capacity for action”, perhaps after the next event Israel won’t be nearly as restrained.