Tel Aviv — The paradox of Israel’s reaction to the assassination of Hezbollah arch-terrorist Imad Mughniyeh could be summed up in a humorous pop song from the last decade:
“If you travel to a foreign country, hide your Star of David in your shirt.
It’s dangerous for them to know you’re from here.
Say you’re from Greece. Say you’re from Sudan….
No one should make a fuss over you.”
Indeed, while Israelis welcomed the mysterious assassination of the Hezbollah military commander in a Damascus car bombing last week, any celebration may have been premature.
Amid concern that Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah would make good on his declaration of “open war” against Israel and Jewish targets, Israel’s national security council put out a rare universal traveler alert that seemed to echo the same Israeli pop song: Don’t visit Arab countries, beware of strangers, and keep a low profile.
For a moment, it seemed like déjà vu. Just a few years ago, during the height of the Palestinian uprising, Israeli assassination strikes would trigger fears of new bus bombings and shooting attacks in the shopping centers.
But at the departure check-in at Ben Gurion Airport, passengers waiting in long lines for security interviews responded that they had not given too much thought to the travel warnings.
Israelis, they explained, had become accustomed to living with the threat of terrorism, regardless of the threats of the Hezbollah leader.
Ida Harari, a 60-year-old government employee, said she didn’t think twice about canceling plans to travel on Russia on a business trip Tuesday evening. Pointing to the unremarkable line of passengers, she asked, “Do you see people upset or jumping?”
Terrorism, she explained, had moved beyond the confines of Israel to become an international problem, and the moment one changed her routine was the moment of capitulation to terrorists.
“I’m traveling with a peaceful heart. Am I going to let a terrorist organization dictate my life? They won’t live to see the day,” she said.
The price of Israel’s war on terrorism is living under threat, Harari concluded. “There is no war that we haven’t paid with more war.”
Even the worst days of the intifada didn’t stop tens of thousands of Israelis from vacationing in Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula’s eastern coast, she pointed out.
In another section of the departure hall, Yaffa and Yitzhak Ittach waited on a bench for their travel group to Vietnam. The couple echoed Harari’s sentiments that threats against Israelis are ubiquitous regardless of whether one terrorist or another is killed.
“They’ll always blame Israel,” said Yitzhak Ittach, who said he supported the attack on the Hezbollah’s key link with Iran. “It was a good blow to Hezbollah. The person who should be afraid is Nasrallah.”
But the passengers’ seeming indifference toward the travel warning doesn’t reflect what seems to be a heightened state of alert among plain-clothed security officers at the airport. In less than an hour, the sight of a reporter interviewing strangers in the departures hall set off alarm bells for two different agents.
The security officers explained that the airport’s status as a potential terrorist target makes it a sensitive location, and requested that a journalist receive authorization from the airport’s authority before conducting interviews.
“The threat by Hezbollah is considered very credible,” said Yakov Bar Siman Tov, a professor of international relations at Hebrew University. Despite Israeli efforts to distance itself from the attack, Hezbollah has blamed the Jewish state anyway. The Syrians have yet to weigh in on who is responsible.
There are reasons for Israel to be bracing for an attack.
After the last assassination of a ranking Hezbollah figure, Secretary-General Abbas Mussawi in 1992, the organization carried out a string of retaliatory actions against Israel over a two-year period. In the immediate aftermath, it launched a five-day-long Katyusha attack on northern Israel, assassinated an Israeli diplomat in Turkey and bombed the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires.
Two years later, with Iranian help, Hezbollah blew up the AMIA Jewish community center, also in the Argentinean capital. In those attacks, all masterminded by Mughniyeh, more than 100 hundred people died.
Mussawi was gunned down in broad daylight by Israeli helicopter gunships. But in Mughniyeh’s case, it is not clear whether Israel was involved in the assassination.
Mike McConnell, U.S. director of national intelligence, suggested that it might have been “internal Hezbollah” or Syria. The Kuwaiti newspaper al-Rai claimed the killing was perpetrated by people from “an Arab country that shares a border with Syria,” presumably Lebanon.
The London Sunday Times fingered the Mossad. It suggested that Mughniyeh was helping Syria plan major retaliation for Israel’s mysterious airstrike against a Syrian nuclear facility in September, and that in killing Mughniyeh, Israel was taking pre-emptive action.
But most Israeli experts say the question of who killed Mughniyeh is largely irrelevant as far as the impending cycle of violence is concerned.
“It doesn’t matter who killed him. Israel is seen as the beneficiary and Israel will pay the price,” said Eyal Zisser, head of Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
As it braces for the reprisal, Israel, for the first time since the 2006 war, has put Patriot anti-missile systems near Haifa on alert to intercept incoming Katyusha rockets. The IDF also has bolstered its forces in northern Israel for quick response to any Katyusha barrage.
The upside of the assumptions of Israeli involvement is that Israel has improved its deterrence capability against potential enemies, he said.
A year and a half after it rained rockets down on northern Israel, the Shiite militants aren’t expected to revisit the same line of attack, fearing running afoul of United Nations peacekeepers and the Lebanese army.
Instead, the concern is that the group is planning attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, or even planning to kidnap Israeli tourists. “We expect there to be a quick reaction,” the expert said.
To be sure, amid the praise for the anonymous intelligence outfit that carried out the attack, there were some Israeli commentators who argued that assassinating prominent terrorists is not necessarily the preferred option.
Citing Menachem Begin’s thumbs-down for a hit attempt on Yasir Arafat during the first Lebanon war, Haaretz commentator Yoel Marcus suggested that sometimes it is preferable to follow an arch-terrorist to foil his schemes rather than assassinating him and not knowing what attacks he left behind in the planning stages.
At the same time, he accused the government’s travel warning of sowing chaos. “A government needs to give confidence to its citizens, not scare them.”
JTA contributed to this report.