Lawless: The Israeli-Hezbollah Conflict Takes a Dangerous Turn

The "rules of the game" have unraveled. Now what?

On January 18, 2015, an Israeli missile strike in Quneitra (part of the Syrian-controlled section of the Golan Heights) resulted in the deaths of several Hezbollah operatives, including a fighter named Jihad Mughniyah.

Barely two weeks later, in a leaked report published by the Washington Post, the world also learned that Imad Mughniyah (Jihad’s father and a senior Hezbollah operative) had been assassinated in February 2008 through the combined efforts of the CIA and the Mossad.

Why, one has to wonder, is this detailed information regarding the players behind the 2008 car-bombing death of Imad Mughniyah just now coming to light?

To understand the message conveyed by this leak, it is important to consider the events that unfolded following the killing of Jihad Mughniyah in January. After the Israeli attack, the world waited apprehensively for the retaliation that everyone knew Hezbollah would feel compelled to provide.

Eventually, it came in the form of a minor offensive within the contested Shebaa Farms region, resulting in the deaths of two Israeli soldiers. Israel then responded by shelling the Shebaa Farms, killing one Spanish peacekeeper. After this, the attempted escalation fizzled out; Hezbollah, already deeply involved in the Syrian civil war, made it clear through back channels that it was not going to press the matter with Israel.

For certain parties on both sides of the conflict, however, this was not enough. On Hezbollah’s side, many supporters believed that the audacity of the Israeli attack and the importance of Jihad Mughniyah as an iconic figure mandated more serious revenge.

On January 30, Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary general, gave a speech in which he appeared to address these concerns. He emphasized Hezbollah’s strength and made vague promises of future retaliations. Following a ceremony to honor the “martyrs” of the Quneitra operation, he uttered a pointed statement, declaring that Hezbollah now had “the right to respond in any place and at any time and in the way we see as appropriate.”

Nasrallah’s statement likely incorporated a certain amount of political grandstanding. It is significant, however, that with this single utterance Nasrallah wiped away the so-called “rules of the game” that his organization has attempted to enforce throughout the previous two decades. Under these unwritten rules of engagement, Hezbollah’s operatives would not attempt to enter Israeli territory or conduct many international operations. In return, Israel would not fire at civilians in Lebanon. These rules of engagement came into being in 1996, in the wake of Operation Grapes of Wrath, an exercise in cynicism launched by Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres as a means of shoring up Zionist support during that year’s election campaign.

Grapes of Wrath finally ended after the Qana massacre, in which over one hundred civilian refugees in a United Nations compound were killed, allegedly by Israeli shelling. The international outrage over these events led to a ceasefire in which Israel and Hezbollah both reserved the right to self-defense, but vowed to reduce the scope of their operations.