By Hussein Dakroub
The killing of Hezbollah commander Samir Quntar in an Israeli airstrike near Damascus will likely trigger a Hezbollah retaliation against the Jewish state, security sources said Sunday, in a tit-for-tat development that could ignite hostilities in the volatile border region in south Lebanon that has been largely quiet since 2006. In what appeared to be a quick but limited military escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli border, Israel’s military said it fired artillery rounds into south Lebanon Sunday in response to rockets fired earlier across the border that crashed into northern Israel.
The Israeli military held the Lebanese government responsible for attacks emanating from its territory, saying in a statement it will “continue to act against any attempt to harm Israel’s sovereignty and the security of its citizens.”
Earlier, three Katyusha rockets fired from Lebanon had struck open areas in northern Israel, causing no damage or injuries, Israel’s military said, hours after Kuntar’s killing.
The commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, UNIFIL, called on the Lebanese and Israeli sides to exercise “maximum restraint” in order to avoid any escalation.
“This is a serious incident in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 and is clearly directed at undermining stability in the area,” UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Luciano Portolano said in a statement released Sunday night.
“It is imperative to identify and apprehend the perpetrators of this attack. Additional troops have been deployed on the ground and patrols have been intensified across our area of operations in coordination with the LAF to prevent any further incidents. ... At this time the situation along the Blue Line is calm.”
Israeli officials linked the killing of Quntar, the longest-held prisoner in Israel who was freed in a prisoner swap in 2008, to alleged preparations for opening a new front from Syrian territory against the Jewish state near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Hezbollah quickly promised to exact revenge for Quntar’s killing.
“Hezbollah will not let Quntar’s blood to go in vain. This matter [revenge] is left to the Hezbollah command to decide the time and place,” Hezbollah MP Ali Ammar told Al-Jadeed TV station.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah was due to speak via Al-Manar TV at 8:30 p.m. Monday on Quntar’s killing as both supporters of the group and Syrian loyalist groups said the death would be avenged and not in vain. In addition to Quntar, Farhan Shaalan, the commander of the anti-Israel Syrian resistance in the strategic Golan Heights, was also killed along with a number of Syrian civilians in the Israeli raid on the residential district of Jaramana near Damascus at 10:15 p.m. Saturday.
Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of fighters to Syria to support President Bashar Assad against rebels seeking to topple him, said in a statement Quntar was “martyred” along with a number of Syrian citizens in the Israeli raid, without giving details.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said two Israeli warplanes that violated Syrian airspace fired four long-range missiles at a residential building in Jaramana. It aired footage of the building, which appeared to be destroyed. Kantar’s brother, Bassam, confirmed his “martyrdom” in a Twitter feed.
Syrian state news agency SANA said Quntar was killed in a “terrorist and hostile missile attack on a residential building.” SANA did not mention Israel in its report on the strike, which it said killed several people.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi pointed the finger at Israel but fell short of blaming it directly. “The party that gains most from the assassination of Kuntar is the Zionist enemy whom we have long known for these cowardly attacks,” Zoubi told Al-Manar TV station.
Hezbollah’s official media said Quntar would be buried in a cemetery in the southern suburbs of Beirut Monday. Hezbollah officials, including Quntar’s brother, Bassam, received condolences from a large crowd of supporters.
Iran denounced the Israeli raid as a form of “state terrorism.”
“Such acts of the Zionist regime [Israel], which have become a consistent method, are the most dangerous forms of state terrorism,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari was quoted as saying by Iran’s ILNA news agency.
Israel welcomed Quntar’s death, saying he had been preparing attacks on it from Syrian soil, but stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed him.
Jailed in Israel for his part in a 1979 raid in Israel that killed four people, Quntar, a Druze, was repatriated to Lebanon in 2008 in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, which he later joined.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz said he was not sorry about Quntar’s death but could not comment on the accusations that Israel was behind the killing. “If something happened to him I think that no civilized person can be sorry. But again I learned it from the reports in the international media and I can make no concrete reference to it,” he said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not comment on the strike after his weekly Cabinet meeting.
Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser, predicted Hezbollah would seek to exact “small revenge” for Quntar’s killing, but said Hezbollah, like Iran, was likely too busy fighting in Syria to afford a new front with Israel.
Quntar was imprisoned in 1979 in Israel and sentenced to three life terms after he and three other Lebanese infiltrated the Jewish state and staged an attack in the northern coastal town of Nahariya, killing a policeman and then kidnapping a man, Danny Haran, and his 4-year-old daughter and killing them outside their home. Born in 1962, Quntar kept a low public profile after Israel released him. Hezbollah did not say which role Quntar played in the Syrian conflict, but Syrian state media said he was involved in a major offensive earlier this year in Qunaitra, near the Golan Heights.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked accused Kuntar of overseeing covert Hezbollah entrenchment on the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northeastern Israel. “He set up a broad terror network on the Golan, and it is good that he returned his soul to his creator,” Shaked told Israel’s Army Radio.
Israel has carried out multiple strikes in Syria targeting Hezbollah and Syrian army positions over the past two years. Most of the strikes have hit what were reported to be weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Sunday’s attack was Israel’s first on a Hezbollah target since Jan. 15 when it hit a convoy in the Golan Heights area of Qunaitra, killing six Hezbollah members, including the son of the group’s late military leader Imad Mughniyeh, and an Iranian commander.
Hezbollah retaliated 10 days later by ambushing an Israeli military convoy in the occupied Shebaa Farms, killing two Israeli soldiers. At the time, Nasrallah vowed to respond to any Israeli attack on the party’s members in Syria.
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