Ali Ramzi al-Aswad, a senior member of the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement, was shot dead on Sunday, March 19, in the Qudsaya area of Damascus. According to a report in the pro-Hezbollah, pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, unidentified assailants fired more than 30 rounds from automatic weapons at al-Aswad as the Islamic Jihad operative walked from his home to his car. Al-Akhbar and other regional media outlets immediately assumed that Israel was responsible for the killing.
An editorial in the same al-Akhbar, published on March 20th, sought to locate the killing of al-Aswad within the broader context of the current escalation in tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.
This escalation derives from the significant uptick this year of violence in the northern West Bank, and from growing indications that Lebanese Hezbollah, with its Iranian patrons behind it, is seeking to assist, capitalize on and extend the scope of this violence. In this regard, the recent incident in Megiddo, in which an operative entered Israel from Lebanon equipped with weaponry including a sophisticated claymore mine, represents until now the clearest practical evidence of this attempt at linkage. So how seriously should these efforts be taken?
The al-Akhbar editorial was written by the paper's chief editor, Ibrahim Amin. Amin is a close associate of the Hezbollah leadership and of the movement's general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah. As such, his writings often reflect the thinking of senior currents of the pro-Iran axis in Lebanon and elsewhere and are hence worthy of particular attention.
Amin locates current events within the framework of the month of Ramadan, which started this week. He asserts that "events, consultations and contacts seen and unseen" suggest that "the coming month of Ramadan will be an occasion to announce a new, more effective level of coordination between the resistance forces in the entire region." Amin goes on to note the position "recently launched by the leaders of the resistance regarding the unity of the arenas... the aim of which is to raise resistance activity inside Palestine to a level that opens the door to a comprehensive upris
The "resistance," according to Ibrahim Amin, "realizes that direct, qualitative action on the entire area of historical Palestine represents the starting point for the complete liberation project."
From this point of view, Amin contends that the killing of al-Aswad reflected an Israeli desire to respond to the Megiddo "operation" and the evidence it indicated of the aforementioned "unity of the arenas."
Israel's aim, Amin suggests, was to strengthen deterrence, while avoiding "uncontrolled escalation" and a deterioration to a general conflict. The choice of the target – a Palestinian from an Iran and Hezbollah-backed organization – and the location – Syria rather than Lebanon – was calibrated in order to achieve this precise effect, the al-Akhbar editor proposes.
The approach to Ramadan this year, Amin continues, has been distinguished by the presence of what he refers to as an "insane government" in Israel, and a resulting "internal crisis in the occupying entity in an unprecedented manner, amid the escalation of regional dangers to Israel, especially from Iran and the northern front."
"Everyone," Amin concludes, "is waiting for different days in the coming Ramadan, and first and foremost the enemy, who does not desist even for an hour from the crimes of killing and assassination."
IBRAHIM AL-AMIN'S editorial, it is worth noting, is primarily a response to a somewhat dispiriting event for his readers and patrons – namely, the successful penetration, as he perceives it, of his side's territory by its enemies, and the targeted assassination of a senior operative. Nevertheless, the opinions expressed in it reflect a widespread stance reflected in other statements by leaders and mouthpieces of the pro-Iran regional alliance.
The specific and common elements are the conviction that their cause is served by the internal disunity and strife in Israel, and the desire to link the evident renewed desire for confrontation in the West Bank with the capabilities and capacities of Iran and its clients.
Recent statements by Nasrallah himself and by senior Hamas military officials, including Marwan Issa and Saleh al Arouri, have followed along similar lines.
A series of meetings of senior officials of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad over the past week, meanwhile, further suggest at least a desire to project an image of coordination.
According to a statement issued by Hezbollah's press office on Sunday, Nasrallah met recently with a delegation led by Saleh al Arouri of Hamas. The discussion, according to the statement, centered on "the latest developments in occupied Palestine, especially the resistance in the West Bank and Jerusalem."
Arouri is the most senior military operative of Hamas currently active on the external front. Formerly based in Turkey, he has claimed responsibility for organizing the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli Jewish teenagers, which led to Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
Nasrallah also met last Saturday with Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala and an accompanying delegation. Nasrallah and al-Nakhala agreed to "continue consultation and coordination with a view to enhancing the resistance against Israel," according to a statement subsequently released by Islamic Jihad.
HOW SHOULD all this be interpreted?
Firstly, it should be noted that expressions of bellicose self-confidence on the part of this camp, sometimes with only glancing resemblances to reality, are not a new development.
A narrative according to which the violence of May 2021 represented the birth of a new paradigm in the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is prevalent here. What Israelis refer to as Operation Guardian of the Walls is termed by Hezbollah and its allies the Saif al-Quds (Sword of Jerusalem) battle.
Robert Inlakesh, writing at the pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen media website in May 2022, characterized the supposed new developments of this period in the following terms: "The tactics used by the armed groups, such as; slowly revealing new weapons technology, striking everywhere inside the 1948 territories, putting Israeli airports on temporary lockdown and controlling the course of the battle, all showed the entire region the weaknesses of 'Tel Aviv.'"
The latest statements by Nasrallah and Issa, and al-Amin's editorial, should be seen as coming from within this perception. A cooler glance at the situation, however, would require an acknowledgment that even in 2021, the hoped-for mass mobilization of Palestinians in support of a new intifada did not take place. Nor did it happen in the Ramadan of 2022, despite the uptick in violence. Nor has it happened so far this year, despite the very significant increase in violence in the West Bank since the start of 2023.
The key question, however, is not the accuracy of the perceptions revealed in al-Amin's editorial and Inlakesh's somewhat overheated prose. Rather, the key matter is the extent to which those who publicly profess these views, especially among the decision-makers in that camp, are themselves genuinely convinced by them. Rhetoric, after all, can play a compensatory and comforting role. It can divert attention from a more cautious and pragmatic praxis. In the Arab world, famously, it very often fulfills this function.
Is that the case here? Or is something more substantive being revealed?
THIS TAKES us back to the incident in Megiddo. All the relevant information is not publicly available. But here is what is known: The forces that control the Lebanese side of the Israel-Lebanon border, i.e., Hezbollah and its Iranian masters, chose to initiate or permit the launching of an operation involving the use of sophisticated military technology which, if successfully employed, would have resulted in an act of terror involving mass casualties.
Such an action would undoubtedly have brought forth a major Israeli response. That they carried out or sanctioned such an operation would seem to indicate that the assessment outlined in Ibrahim al-Amin's editorial following the assassination of Ali Ramzi al-Aswad does indeed reflect the view adhered to by key individuals in the highest echelons of Hezbollah and among the Iranian forces which stand behind it. This ought to be a matter of note for all those concerned with Israel's security and with the maintenance of its deterrence.
Jonathan Spyer is director of research at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.