Israel’s government swiftly denied responsibility for the assassination of Imad Moughniyah, though several senior ministers applauded the killing of the top Hizbollah official who is blamed for a string of terror attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world.
”Israel rejects the attempt by terror groups to attribute to it any involvement in this incident. We have nothing further to add,” the office of Ehud Olmert, Israel’s prime minister, said in a statement.
Israel has in the past occasionally claimed responsibility for targeted assassinations, but in some cases it has also denied the country’s involvement in attacks that were later found to have been the work of Israeli agents. Analysts cautioned against reading too much into the government’s official response on Wednesday, pointing out that it was not in Israel’s interest to boast about pulling off an assassination inside a neighbouring, hostile country.
Gideon Ezra, the environment minister and a former Israeli intelligence officer, said: ”I of course do not know who carried out the assassination of Imad, but he should be blessed.” Danny Yatom, the former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency and now a member of parliament, hailed the attack as a ”great achievement for the free world in its fight on terror”, adding that Mr Moughniyah was responsible for the ”deaths of many Jews, Israelis, Americans”.
Amid the widespread satisfaction over the demise of one of Israel’s most dangerous foes, however, there was also concern over the likely response both from Hizbollah and Syria. For Israel, a renewed flare-up of fighting on its northern border would come at a particularly inopportune time, with much of the country’s attention focused on dealing with the threat posed by the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and rocket attacks on Israeli cities in the south.
Eyal Zisser, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Avib University and an expert on Lebanese and Syrian politics, said: ”Hizbollah will retaliate but the question is in what way. I think it is unlikely that they will want to start a new war with Israel because they have not recovered yet from the last one [in July and August 2006]. The damage inflicted on their infrastructure was so heavy it would be stupid for them to start another war now.”
Professor Zisser predicted that Syria, too, would be reluctant to stage a large-scale confrontation with Israel, not least because of the absence of any official claim of responsibility from Jerusalem: ”Of course it is a blow to Syria, but the attack was not aimed at Syria. My guess is that they will ignore it – the Syrians are very careful and very slow.”
In 1992, Israel claimed responsibility for the assassination of former Hizbollah leader Abbas Al-Musawi through an air attack in southern Lebanon. The killing triggered the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that left 29 dead – an attack said to have been masterminded by Mr Moughniyah.