Israeli security officials believe that Hezbollah, despite its claims of victory, is still deterred by the experience of the 2006 war, in which it lost hundreds of fighters. Instead of a direct war, Israel fears Hezbollah might try to strike Israeli or Jewish targets around the world. Israel has accused Hezbollah of a string of attacks on Israeli targets in recent years, including a deadly attack on Israeli tourists in Bulgaria last July.
The Israeli airstrike comes at a particularly sensitive and vulnerable time for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Despite its formidable weapons arsenal and political clout in the country, the group’s credibility and maneuvering space has been significantly reduced in the past few years.
Hezbollah still suffers from the fallout of the 2006 war, which many in Lebanon accused it of provoking by kidnapping soldiers from the border area. Since then, the group has come under increasing pressure at home to disarm, leading to sectarian tensions between its Shiite supporters and Sunnis from the opposing camp that have often spilled into deadly street fighting.
When Hezbollah sent an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone over Israel in November, the group boasted of its capabilities — but critics in Lebanon slammed it for embarking on a unilateral adventure that could provoke Israel.
Despite persistent reports and accusations that Hezbollah members are fighting alongside the military in Syria, Hezbollah has largely approached the Syria conflict with caution, mindful that any action it takes could backfire.
‘‘In different times, Hezbollah would have reacted to Israel’s surgical strike, but not today,’’ said Bilal Saab, director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, North America. ‘‘This is a time for hunkering down and weathering the storm.’’
The uprising in Syria, the main transit point of weapons brought from Iran to Hezbollah, presents the group with its toughest challenge since its inception in 1982.
The group could still get weapons, but would struggle to get them as easily without the Syria supply route. Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah’s public support for the Assad regime has proved costly and the group’s reputation has taken a severe beating. Former champions of the group now describe it as hypocritical for supporting Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, but not in Syria.
As for Israel and Syria, although they are bitter enemies, they have avoided direct conflict for most of the past 40 years. Israel has been careful to stay out of Syria’s civil war, not wanting to be seen as supporting any side in the conflict.
While the attack overnight Tuesday, believed to be the first by Israel on Syrian soil since 2007, appeared to come out of nowhere, signs of impending action were evident in recent days.
On Jan. 23, the day after national elections, Netanyahu convened top security officials for an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in Syria.
One of the meeting participants, Vice Premier Silvan Shalom, warned this week that Israel could be forced to carry out a pre-emptive attack under certain circumstances. The same day, Israel suddenly moved a new, state-of-the-art rocket-defense system to the northern city of Haifa, which was hit hard by Hezbollah rocket fire during a 2006 war.
Uzi Rabi, a military analyst at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center, said the attack was a ‘‘kind of message’’ sent by Israel to Syria and Hezbollah.
‘‘It says we do have capabilities when it comes to intelligence gathering ... and this would serve as kind of a warning sign to Hezbollah not to transfer chemical weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah,’’ he said.
Federman reported from Jerusalem.