Senior defense officials have warned that Israel is facing an Iranian storm that is coming closer to her borders. But who are the men behind the storm?
Who are the faces behind the dire warnings from Israel’s top military officer of “multiple enemies on multiple fronts”?
Senior defense officials have warned that Israel is facing an Iranian storm that is coming closer to her borders. But who are the men behind the storm? And what has Israel done to stop them?
1) Qassem Soleimani
Born in 1957 in Iran’s Kerman province, Qassem Solemani joined Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in 1979 and advanced rapidly, rising through the ranks during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s to lead the 41st Division while he was still in his 20s.
Considered the head of the snake, Israeli defense officials have named Soleimani as the No. 1 enemy responsible for Iran’s ongoing entrenchment in Syria and its ongoing support for Hezbollah’s precision missile project.
“Our three targets have one address – Iran,” a senior defense source said in August, adding that Soleimani is the address for two of the three threats. While he refused to answer how Israel is deal with the threat, according to foreign reports Soleimani has been the target of several Israeli assassination plots in the past.
In October, Tehran said that it had foiled an Arab-Israeli plot to kill Soleimani by planting 350-500 kg. bomb in a congregation hall used for Shi’ite commemoration ceremonies in his home province of Kerman.
Days earlier, Soleimani claimed that he and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah escaped an Israeli assassination attempt in Beirut during the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Soleimani, who said he spent almost the entire 34-day conflict in Lebanon, said he entered the country from Syria alongside Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah commander who was assassinated in 2008 in an attack attributed to Israel and the CIA.
“We were feeling that these two bombings were about to be followed by a third one… so we decided to get out of that building,” he said. “We didn’t have a car, and there was complete silence, just the Israeli regime aircraft flying over Dahiyeh.”
Like a cat with nine lives, Soleimani also survived the operation that killed Mughniyeh in 2008. “At one point, the two men were standing there, same place, same street. All they had to do was push the button,” one former US official was quoted by The Washington Post in 2015. But the operatives were only authorized to kill Mughniyeh.
While Soleimani has so far escaped alleged Israel’s wrath, his quest for Israel’s annihilation probably places him in the IDF’s crosshairs.
2) Hassan Nasrallah
Hezbollah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah is Israel’s second most wanted terrorist. Born in 1960 in the eastern suburbs of Beirut, he joined Hezbollah following the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and became the group’s leader in 1992 following the assassination of Abbas al-Musawi.
Hezbollah – Lebanon’s Party of God – has been transformed under Nasrallah’s leadership, becoming the most dominant political party in the county and a major social movement for the its Shi’ite community. Under Nasrallah, Hezbollah has developed from a militia and terrorist group to a terrorist army capable of inflicting severe damage on Israel.
Hundreds have been killed in terrorist attacks across the globe by the Shi’ite terrorist group, and thousands of others have been killed in the several military confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah over the years.
In July, on the 13th anniversary of the Second Lebanon War, Nasrallah warned that “any war will be bigger than the 2006 war for Israel, and it will put it on the brink of extinction.” In an interview with Al-Manar Television, Nasrallah said that there will be “surprises on the ground, in the air and at sea” in the next war between the two enemies, adding the Shi’ite group has game-changing weapons, including precision missiles and drones, and that “the 70 km. Israeli coast starting from Netanya and ending at Ashdod is under the resistance fire.”
Since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Hezbollah has rebuilt its arsenal with some 130,000 short-range rockets and several thousand more missiles that can reach central Israel. According to some Israeli analysts, the next war with Hezbollah might see 1,500-2,000 rockets fired into Israel per day, compared to the 150-180 per day during the Second Lebanon War. With Iran’s help, the group has been working on a precision missile project since 2013, and has been attempting to build factories to produce precision missiles in South Lebanon, Beirut and the Bekaa Valley under the guidance of senior Iranian officers. Despite Israel’s ongoing “war-between-wars” campaign to disrupt the project, Hezbollah has produced several precision missiles.
In addition to rebuilding its arsenal, some 40,000 Hezbollah soldiers have gained considerable battlefield experience fighting for Syria’s President Bashar Assad in that country’s eight-year-long civil war.
Like Soleimani might be, Nasrallah could also be on Israel’s hit list and has survived assassination attempts blamed on the Jewish state – once by an airstrike, once by poison and once by a missile strike. Nasrallah knows he’s a target, and for the past 13 years has been living in a deep bunker below the group’s stronghold of Dahiyeh.
3) Baha Abu al-Ata
The head of Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) Al-Quds Brigades in Gaza, Baha Abu al-Ata is considered one of the top terrorists in the blockaded coastal enclave. While Hamas is the ruling party in the Gaza Strip, the group has in recent years been losing control over the street. And the vacuum is being filled by Ata, Tehran’s main man in Gaza.
While PIJ is a Sunni Jihadist movement, it’s supported by Iran, which directs the group through PIJ’s chief Ziad Nahala who resides in Damascus.
Ata has been involved in planning attacks against Israel, manufacturing arms and upgrading long-range rocket launching capabilities. The second largest group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas, PIJ has been assessed by military intelligence as a factor increasing the risk of an escalation in the blockaded coastal enclave, since it is not under the direct control of Hamas and acts independently for its own interests.
Ata was identified by the IDF as having ordered the firing of rockets towards southern Israel in April. According to the IDF, under Ata, PIJ is trying to carry out low-level attacks and maintain a low profile so that Hamas doesn’t figure out its ambition to undermine long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel.
“There are dozens of countries around the world which are trying to improve the humanitarian situation in the Strip, but at the same time, there is one man inside Gaza and one man outside the Strip trying to torpedo that,” former IDF spokesperson Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Ronen Manelis said at the time.
Today Hamas is no longer the number one threat in the Gaza Strip. PIJ is responsible for several violent attacks on IDF troops during the Great March of Return protests along the Gaza border fence, including the first death of a soldier along the Gaza border since Operation Protective Edge in 2014 when St.-Sgt. Aviv Levi was shot by sniper near Kibbutz Kissufim. Another soldier was struck by sniper fire in the area less than a week after Levi was killed. In late January, an IDF officer was lightly wounded in the same area after his helmet was struck by sniper fire along the Gaza Strip security fence, in an attack for which PIJ claimed responsibility.
Like Soleimani and Nasrallah, Ata may also now be in the IDF’s crosshairs. He too has survived several assassination attempts, including during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012. While the IDF continues to hold Hamas responsible for all that occurs in the Strip, one day the retaliation against PIJ will come.