Israel and Hezbollah’s Golan calculations
Dubai - When Hezbollah went to war with Israel in 2006, estimates suggest it had approximately 13,000 short-range rockets. Now it could have more than 100,000, including weapons with greater accuracy, range and payloads.
Hezbollah has acquired the Russian-made SA-17 “Buk”, a medium-range air defence missile originally sold to Syria that has a range of 50km and can target aircraft flying at altitudes of 24,000 metres.
The SA-17, which Israel went to great lengths to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring, represents the Lebanese group’s most potent air defence weapon and puts all Israeli aircraft within reach.
Israel also says Hezbollah is constructing bases in Syria to store missiles — possibly Iranian Shabab-1, Shabab-2 and Fateh-110 ballistic missiles, which puts Israel fully within striking range.
These developments represent a growing strategic threat for Israel. Add to it the possibility of Hezbollah establishing a presence in the Golan and the situation becomes especially troubling.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 during the Six-day war and has occupied it since, effectively annexing it in 1981. International law officially recognises the territory as Syrian, as do Israel’s closest allies such as the United States, Britain and France.
There has always been a belief that Israel would return the Golan to Syria — with which it technically remains at war — in return for a peace deal and normalisation of relations, similar to Israeli peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan.
During US-brokered peace talks in 1999, Israel offered to return most of the Golan to Syria. However, there has never been genuine approval among the Israeli public or its political and military leaderships to withdraw from the Golan.
In the buildup to the Geneva talks over Syria, Syrian President Bashar Assad again signalled a demand for discussions on the Golan but Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared: “Israel will never leave the Golan Heights.”
Years earlier, Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin suggested that withdrawal from the Golan was “unthinkable, even in times of peace”, saying it would be tantamount to “abandoning Israel’s security”.
With elevations of 2,000 metres in its north and covering approximately 1,800 sq. km, the Golan Heights is of great strategic importance. It extends like a finger to overlook northern Israel, northern Jordan, southern Lebanon and southern Syria.
The Golan is also a vital fresh water source — the headwaters of the Jordan River lie within it and it feeds the Sea of Galilee and Yarmuk River. The 1999 Israeli-Syrian peace talks failed because Israel was unprepared to withdraw to pre-1967 borders, which would give Syria control up to the Sea of Galilee, which is considered by Israel as its most important fresh water source.
Israeli-occupied Golan, however, has become more important than just a heavily fortified buffer zone with Syria. It has more than 20,000 Israelis living in dozens of illegal settlements scattered around its southern approaches.
Before being seized by Israel in 1967, the Golan was populated by 130,000 Syrians. Israeli studies estimate the territory could accommodate 1 million people if properly developed. More than 40% of wines Israel exports are produced in the Golan, as are up to half of certain vegetables and fruit feeding Israel. With its climate and natural beauty, the Golan has developed an important local tourism industry.
The Syrian civil war has brought the Golan back into focus as the small Syrian-controlled side became a ground for clashes between the Assad regime and rebel groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) — the rebranded al-Nusra Front. The Golan is from where Israel has been treating anti-Assad fighters, including JFS and al-Qaeda, so they can return and fight Hezbollah, thereby creating a buffer.
Hezbollah wants to assist the Assad regime in retaking restive areas south of Damascus from opposition fighters, which Israel aids. UN forces have observed people and cargo transfers across the Golan ceasefire line as well as Israeli military interactions with Syrian fighters. Hezbollah also says Israel is prodding JFS to infiltrate the Lebanese border towards its strongholds in the south.
Hezbollah and Iran are mainly concerned with clearing the Golan — just 60km south of Damascus, providing a vantage point for monitoring movements — of anti-Assad fighters.
If Hezbollah can develop an effective front in Israeli-occupied Golan with its evolving capabilities and tactics, just its psychological effects would generate economic and social repercussions.
The Israel-Hezbollah battle in Syria has been far from indirect — Israeli jets have conducted dozens of strikes against Hezbollah supply lines and high-value targets.
In January 2015, an Israeli strike killed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commander Brigadier-General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi and Hezbollah commanders Mohammad Issa and Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of slain Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh.
A retaliatory Hezbollah operation on an Israeli patrol killed two soldiers. Skirmishes have continued since and, in July, Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Naghdi — head of Iranian Basij – visited the Golan.
The dichotomy is that anti-Assad fighters in the Golan both provide a temporary buffer for Israel against Hezbollah but also grant Hezbollah an excuse and opportunity to establish an operating base. It is becoming clear that, as Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah declared, the Golan and southern Lebanon have effectively become a single front moving forward.