BEIRUT, Lebanon — An Israeli missile strike on the Golan Heights in Syria has killed the son of a slain Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyah.
Jihad Mughniyah, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a top-level Hezbollah operative, was killed along with four of the group's fighters in the Syrian town of Quneitra, close to the Israeli border, according to a Hezbollah official cited by the Asssociated Press.
An Israeli security source told AFP that an Israeli helicopter conducted a strike against "terrorists" near Quneitra, on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The source added that the targets were preparing an attack on Israel.
The strike is likely to raise tensions between Israel and the Lebanese Shia group, whose leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah vowed just days ago to respond to any Israeli attacks in Syria.
Jihad Mughniyah's father, Imad, is thought to have masterminded some of Hezbollah’s deadliest attacks, and was once one of America’s most-wanted terrorists. His operations included the bombing of a French and US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, the kidnapping of Western hostages in Lebanon throughout the 1980s and an attack on a synagogue in Argentina in 1994.
He was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. Hezbollah, Syria and Iran blamed Israel.
For at least the past two years, Hezbollah has fought on the side of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in the country’s brutal civil war. Hezbollah’s involvement in the war has seen Syrian jihadist groups strike back in Lebanon, targeting Lebanese civilians in bomb attacks.
The group is credited by some with turning the tide of the conflict in Assad’s favor, playing a key role in recapturing territory in the mountainous area on Syria’s border with Lebanon.
Quneitra province, near the Israeli border, has been the scene of heavy fighting between Syrian government troops and rebels. Hezbollah’s presence in the area could have a number of aims, according to analysts.
“[Hezbollah’s] most immediate concern is to counter Syrian rebel movements. However, there were stated goals by Hezbollah and their compendium of allied Iraqi Shia militias present in Syria to use the Golan as another front against the Israelis,” said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland and author of the blog "Hizballah Cavalcade."
Israel has carried out a number of strikes in Syria since the war began, often claiming to have been targeting weaponry that it said was bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The latest strike comes just days after Nasrallah warned Israel that his fighters would respond to any further attacks by Israel.
"The repeated bombings that struck several targets in Syria are a major violation, and we consider that any strike against Syria is a strike against the whole of the resistance axis, not just against Syria," he said. "The axis is capable of responding. This can happen any time."
It remains unclear how, or if at all, Hezbollah will respond to Israel’s latest strike. The group has committed a great number of its fighters to the Syrian war, and as a result may be reluctant to risk a much wider conflict by targeting Israel directly.
An Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, sparked by the kidnapping of four Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah fighters on the border between the two countries, saw much of Lebanon’s infrastructure destroyed and more than 1,000 Lebanese civilians killed.
During that conflict, Hezbollah was able to inflict heavy damages on Israeli troops and fire thousands of rockets deep into Israel.