With the Israeli army on alert for possible retaliation for an airstrike in Syria that killed an Iranian general, there were increasing signs Tuesday that Israel had been unaware that the top officer was in a targeted Hezbollah convoy.
Israel has kept silent about Sunday’s strike, but Reuters cited a senior Israeli security source as saying the attack had been launched without advance knowledge that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi was in one of the vehicles.
The remarks appeared to be an effort to avert escalation after Iran and Hezbollah threatened retaliation for the assault, which reportedly also killed five other Iranians.
Hezbollah said it had lost six of its men, including Jihad Mughniyah, the son of the Lebanese guerrilla group’s slain military leader, Imad Mughniyah. The airborne strike was carried out near the frontier with the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
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“We did not expect the outcome in terms of the stature of those killed – certainly not the Iranian general,” the Israeli security source told Reuters. “We thought we were hitting an enemy field unit that was on its way to carry out an attack on us at the frontier fence.”
“We got the alert, we spotted the vehicle, identified it as an enemy vehicle and took the shot,” the source said. “We saw this as a limited tactical operation.”
Iran said the general had been in Syria advising government forces fighting al-Qaida-backed rebels. Hezbollah, which has supported the forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, said its men had been on a “field inspection” near Quneitra, where government troops have been trying to dislodge rebels from the Nusra Front, an al-Qaida affiliate.
Asked whether Israel expected a response by Iran or Hezbollah, the source said, “They are almost certain to respond . . . but I think it’s a fair assumption that a major escalation is not in the interest of either side.”
Analysts said the Israeli strike was meant to signal Hezbollah, which fought a war against Israel in 2006, that it wouldn’t be allowed to operate along the Golan frontier and use it as a launching pad for attacks on Israeli-held territory.
Amos Gilad, a senior Israel Defense Ministry official, told Israel Radio on Monday that Hezbollah, backed by Iran, was using a power vacuum in the Golan area “to create an option for an additional front against Israel.”
The incident, however, underscored how deeply involved Iranian and Hezbollah forces are in Assad’s battle against the rebels.
Preparing for possible Hezbollah retaliation, the Israeli army deployed batteries of its Iron Dome missile-defense system in northern Israel on Tuesday and closed parts of a road near the border with Lebanon.
In Iran, the chief of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, was quoted by the Fars News Agency as warning that “the Zionists must wait for the devastating thunderbolts of the anti-Israel resistance groups in the region.”
The strike on Hezbollah came during an Israeli election campaign, raising speculation that it may have been driven by electoral considerations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party has been losing ground in recent public opinion polls, is campaigning with the message that he’s a firm defender of Israel’s security.
Yoav Galant, a former army general who’s a candidate in a party that’s competing with Likud, caused a stir when he suggested in a television interview that based on past experience, the timing of the strike may “not be entirely unconnected to the election.”
In an editorial Tuesday, the liberal newspaper Haaretz listed a series of major Israeli military operations that had been launched during election campaigns. “It’s difficult to avoid the impression that politicians tend to take risks and approve military operations with greater ease when the polls show a grim picture of their standing with the voters,” the newspaper said.