An Israeli helicopter strike in southern Syria on Sunday killed the son of an assassinated military leader of Hezbollah and two other commanders in the militant Lebanese group, according to officials and media reports in Lebanon.
The attack on a convoy near Quneitra, close to the Israeli-held Golan Heights, raised immediate fears of retaliation by Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shiite group that fought a month-long war with Israel in 2006.
The Israeli army refused to comment on the strike, but unnamed Israeli officials were cited in media reports as confirming that Israel carried out the attack. It was the first time Israel had targeted Hezbollah operatives in Syria since the start of the civil war there.
The Hezbollah-run al Manar news channel said two missiles were fired at a group of fighters “on a field inspection” and that several were killed. It said Israeli surveillance aircraft were overhead before the strike.
One of the dead was identified as Jihad Mughniyeh, a commander reportedly responsible for Hezbollah operations on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. He had special status in the organization because he was the son of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s military chief who died in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008 and had been on the United States’ most wanted list for involvement in the 1983 bombings of the Marine barracks and the U.S. Embassy in Beirut.
Along with Jihad Mughniyeh, the Israeli strike killed a field commander known as Abu Issa and another commander, Abu Ali Reza, who is of Iranian origin, according to Arab media reports.
The attack followed warnings last week by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, that his forces might retaliate for what he said were repeated Israeli strikes in Syria. He said his group could penetrate northern Israel in a future conflict and had been stockpiling weapons, including long-range missiles, that could reach any part of Israel.
Agence France Presse cited an unidentified Israeli security source as saying that the strike targeted “terrorists” who were preparing an attack on Israeli-held territory in the Golan. Israeli media cited intelligence sources as saying that planned attacks included firing of anti-tank rockets and planting of explosive devices against Israeli patrols
Hezbollah militants have been supporting forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad in a four-year old conflict with opposition groups.
Israel has carried out several air strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war, reportedly targeting stockpiles of weapons, including missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.