Hezbollah has been prodded to respond to the death of one of its fighters in Syria in what it says was an Israeli airstrike this week.
The terrorist group – which has thousands of fighters, more than 150,000 missiles and controls part of the government of Lebanon – says that Ali Kamel Mohsen was killed on July 20. Other members of the group may also have been harmed.
Over the last several days, Hezbollah supporters have put up hundreds of social media posts vowing revenge. This kinds of rhetoric of "revenge" is similar to Iran's claims that it will avenge the death of IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani, who the US killed in early January.
What we know about Hezbollah is that it is an organization to be taken seriously. When it paints itself into a corner by saying it will respond to the killing any of its members, it tends to do something.
Israel is far stronger today than on the eve of the 2006 war.
However, Hezbollah must weigh this against the regional reality. Israel is far stronger today than on the eve of the 2006 war.
The same Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, gambled in 2006 that Israel would not respond to his attack on a patrol in which Israeli soldiers were killed and bodies kidnapped. He had been watching Israel closely since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, and he had also watched how Israel responded to the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit by Hamas in Gaza.
Nasrallah understands that today there are no restraints on Israel's response to a Hezbollah attack. The White House will give Israel free rein. Israel has a massively powerful and precise arsenal of munitions.
It is under these clouds that Nasrallah and his allies or handlers in Tehran must decide the next move. Israel has sent ground units to the North – Nasrallah knows this as well.
The following are five ways they could retaliate:
A symbolic attack
Hezbollah cut three holes in the northern border fence in April, after the group accused Israel of an airstrike on a vehicle containing Hezbollah members near the Lebanese border that month.
The vehicle was on the Syrian side; the Hezbollah members escaped unharmed. Hezbollah sent its operative to cut holes in the fence. It publicized this afterward, filming Israeli activity along the border and bragging about its ability to infiltrate the Jewish state.
The cutting of holes was designed to show that Hezbollah can strike at any place of its choosing. It wanted to show it can approach the fence easily and that it has carved out these avenues of approach while remaining hidden.
This was largely a symbolic threat to test and send a message to Israel. Hezbollah may opt for a similar symbolic attempt this time. Although the group wants to argue that it can retaliate in a kind of "eye for an eye" capacity of killing one for losing one, it may understand that Israel's response would be decisive after such a bloody attack.
An attack which Hezbollah knows won't cause too many casualties
Hezbollah has sought to create a kind of balance of terror, or what the US in Iraq called "contested deterrence" along the border.
This is part of the "campaign between the wars" in which Israel has carried out more than 1,000 airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets. Many Hezbollah members have been caught up in these airstrikes, with several reportedly killed.
In general, Hezbollah's file is the area along the Golan, seeking to extend its area of control and threat from the Lebanese border which it already dominates, to areas along the Golan, such as around the village of Khader which faces Majd al-Shams.
Hezbollah has lost members in this area in the past. In August 2019, two Hezbollah members of a "killer drone" team were killed near the Golan. Hezbollah also accused Israel of a drone attack in Beirut and vowed to respond. It galvanized Lebanese members of parliament and the president of Lebanon in its plans.
The terrorist group used Kornet missiles to strike at the IDF near Avivim and Yiron along the border on September 1, 2019.
Hezbollah filmed the attack and struck at a vehicle along the border. Israel had placed mannequins there in the days leading up to the attack, according to Lebanese reports.
Later, when the military vehicle was hit, the IDF "staged" an evacuation from the area, appearing to show wounded being taken away.
An investigation after this incident did fault an ambulance for being present in the area, but otherwise Hezbollah was able to carry out a serious attack while Israel was prepared and no casualties resulted. It appeared that the terrorist group saved face through this by being able to show it had retaliated.
An attack into Har Dov
Hezbollah claims that it is "defending" Lebanon and that it is the "resistance" against Israel. It claims to be trying to recover lost Lebanese territory in the area it calls Sheba'a farms and which Israel calls Mount Dov.
This is basically a hilly and mountainous area along the border with Lebanon and Syria, which is actually land disputed with Syria.
While Hezbollah's propaganda about Mount Dov is nonsensical, it has serious implications because the group believes it has a blank check to carry out attacks there as part of its "resistance."
It has indicated in the past that the way it views Israel is contained in several circles.
One circle is Mount Dov and operations there. A second circle is the Lebanon-Israel "Blue Line" border from 1948. This area is where Hezbollah has planned to try to take over Israeli communities in a time of major conflict.
Then there is the Syrian border or "Golan file" for Hezbollah, where it tries to set up a network of operatives along the Syrian border.
Lastly, Hezbollah seeks to threaten Israel with deep missile strikes, including precision guided munitions.
It is in Mount Dov where Hezbollah knows the area and is most comfortable to carry out a type of symbolic attack.
Back in 2002, Hezbollah used mortars, Katyusha rockets and anti-tank missiles in this area.
In October 2014, Hezbollah planted bombs in the Mount Dov area and injured two soldiers. It allegedly did this because of orders from Tehran to respond to an attack on Parchin that Tehran blamed on Israel.
In March, a suspect was wounded trying to cross into Israel near the Lebanese border. This might be the Hezbollah model for a new raid into Mount Dov, either with improvised explosive devices or other methods.
In January 2015, Hezbollah fired six Kornet anti-tank missiles toward Mount Dov, killing two soldiers and wounding seven. This was in retaliation for a killing of seven Hezbollah fighters near the Golan.
However, in the past, Hezbollah has not always put itself in such a position to retaliate as it is in today. It didn't respond to a February killing of one of its member near Khader, and it didn't respond to a July killing of another Hezbollah operative in Syria. But today, things are different. The January 2015 attack is the most likely model for this kind of retaliation.
An attack from Syria
Hezbollah leader Nasrallah said last August that if Israel kills any of its members, then it will retaliate somewhere else. He has hinted that it would be from Lebanon. But Syria offers it another opportunity of plausible deniability. It has sent operatives and drone commanders there. It could use its infrastructure there to expand the front line against Israel.
This would be a new and novel approach. Although Iran fired missile salvos at Israel from Syria in 2018 and launched a drone at Israel from its T-4 base in February 2018, the Syrian front has in general been relatively quiet.
Iran was supposed to keep forces away from the ceasefire lines on the Golan. Hezbollah doesn't want to risk the infrastructure that it has sought to build along the border as a threat, but it may find that an attack from Syria would be limited to retaliatory strikes against its operatives in Syria. That would keep it from destabilizing Lebanon.
Hezbollah knows that Lebanon is in a precarious economic situation; a French delegation has just come to Lebanon. Why would it want to attack Israel and put Lebanon's already weak economy at risk?
Hezbollah has openly said it wants China to invest in Lebanon. China won't invest in a country about to be at war. Hezbollah might like to sacrifice Syrians and others in Syria rather than in its homeland.
A precision strike to show off munitions
Hezbollah could opt for an expanded operation that combines its new technology, such as precision guided munitions it acquired from Iran.
This could combine also with the drones that it has used over the last two decades and with which Iran has become more proficient.
A complex Hezbollah operation like this would seek to humiliate Israel and show off the terrorist group's deterrence capabilities. It might seek to use a precision guided weapon to strike at critical infrastructure – or merely to show how far it can fire such a missile in an attempt to evade Israel's air defenses.
Hezbollah has bragged in the past about sending drones into Israeli airspace.
In 2012, it claimed to have flown a drone over Israel. There have been incidents with small Hezbollah drones over the past year.
The 2012 incident is still the most serious. Hezbollah has been known to have contacts in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Israel has recently busted two PFLP cells backed by Iran.
This potentially gives Hezbollah a longer arm in terms of retaliation options. Combining its infrastructure in Lebanon with precision-guided weapons and allies in the West Bank or Gaza may appeal to its asymmetrical warfare plans. This would add a new threat to its arsenal and also not risk a border escalation.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.