Israel Versus Hezbollah, Round Three?

The Lebanon-based terror group fired rockets into northern Israel just hours after an Israeli strike killed a senior Hezbollah leader in Syria.

A civilian in Damascus inspects a site where an Israeli strike killed a Hezbollah leader on Saturday. (Omar Sanadiki / Reuters)

On Sunday morning, Arab media outlets reported that Israeli forces launched a missile strike that killed Samir Kuntar, a senior Hezbollah leader, and several others in Syria.

Following the reports, Hezbollah released a characteristically bellicose statement confirming his death:

At 10:15 p.m. on Saturday December 19, Zionist warplanes struck a residential building in Jaramana city in Damascus countryside. The dean of liberated detainees from Israeli prisons, brother Mujahid Samir Kuntar was martyred along with several Syrian citizens in the strike.

While Israel did not take responsibility for the strikes, several Israeli government officials and former military officers let it be known they were not sad to learn of Kuntar’s untimely demise. “It is good that people like Samir Kuntar will not be part of our world,” one member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet told Israel Radio.

Hours after the episode, Israeli media reported that at least three missiles fired from Lebanon landed in northern Israel, causing no damages or injuries. The projectiles landed near the Israeli city of Nahariya, which is meaningful in the context of Kuntar’s violent legacy.

In 1979, Kuntar led a raid in which he and a group of attackers infiltrated Israel from Lebanon, killed an Israeli police officer, and then kidnapped Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter from their Nahariya home. As Israeli troops bore down on them, Kuntar executed the two on a beach. Haran’s two-year-old daughter also died when his wife, Smadar, accidentally smothered her while trying to stifle her cries from the crawlspace where they were hiding. (On Sunday, more than 45 years later, Smadar Haran called Kuntar’s death “historic justice.”​)

Kuntar was sentenced to life in prison in Israel, but was controversially released in 2008, when he and four other Hezbollah prisoners were freed in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers that the group kidnapped and killed in 2006. Kuntar received a hero’s welcome in Lebanon and was eventually received and honored by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran. In September, the U.S. State Department designated Kuntar as a terrorist, noting his rise through the ranks of Hezbollah.

The biggest question is whether Israel’s purported attack and Hezbollah’s alleged retaliation will augur the opening of a new front between the two foes. A fragile UN-imposed ceasefire has mostly held in the nine years since Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war to a standstill in the second major conflict between the two parties.

Earlier this year, two Israeli soldiers were killed in a Hezbollah ambush near the Lebanese border after Israel killed five members of the group in another strike. That limited level of retaliation could be the blueprint by which Hezbollah operates, particularly as the group battles to keep the Assad regime afloat in the Syrian civil war.

The death of Kuntar is also significant because the recent escalation of Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, which many thought would forestall this kind of high-profile strike.

“The Israeli strike dented the new sense of security on the part of Mr. Assad’s supporters that came after Russia began its direct military intervention in the conflict in late September, using its air power to shore up Mr. Assad and his Hezbollah allies,” noted The New York Times.