A suspected Israeli airstrike has killed Samir Kuntar, one of Hezbollah's militant leaders in Syria, according to reports from the Lebanon-based group and the Syrian state media.
Hezbollah, which has sent hundreds of fighter to Syria to support President Bashar al-Assad against rebels, issued a statement saying the "Zionist enemy's planes" struck a building in the Jaramana district of Damascus late Saturday, killing Kuntar and several others.
Footage from the scene showed a building reduced to rubble after he attack, which, according to Israeli news outlet Haaretz, killed between six to eight people, including other Hezbollah militants.
Israel welcomed Kuntar's death, saying he had been preparing attacks on the country from Syrian soil, but stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed him. Israel's Former National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror told reporters that Kuntar's presence in the Golan Heights, which borders Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan, warranted suspicion.
"Samir Kuntar was pivotal in the efforts of Hezbollah to prepare the next launching pad in the Golan Heights," Amidror said. "He was very active in the north part of the Golan Heights in the Syrian side, to prepare the area for attacks against Israel, and if he was neutralized by someone it's good news for the state of Israel."
Amidror said he doubted the strike would escalate hostilities between Israel and Iranian-backed Hezbollah, whose last major confrontation was in 2006. He said Hezbollah, like Iran, was likely too busy fighting in Syria to afford a new front with Israel.
"We have to take into consideration that Hezbollah will try to retaliate in a way which will not make Israel, will not force Israel to begin a big operation or a war against Hezbollah," Amidror said. "It's not in the interest of Hezbollah or the Iranians to do, the situation in Syria is not good to open another front."
Three rockets exploded in northern Israel later on Sunday evening, but nobody was injured, according to Haaretz.
Jailed in Israel for his part in a 1979 raid in Israel that killed four people, Kuntar, a Druze, was repatriated to Lebanon in 2008 in a prisoner swap with Hezbollah, which he is then believed to have joined.
Hezbollah's official media said Qantar would be buried on Monday in a Shiite cemetery in its main stronghold of Dahiya in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The party opened a condolences hall to receive the public.
"Such acts of the Zionist regime (Israel), which have become a consistent method, are the most dangerous forms of state terrorism," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari was quoted as saying by Iran's ILNA news agency.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al Zubi pointed the finger at Israel but fell short of blaming it directly.
"The party that gains most from the assassination of Qantar is the Zionist enemy whom we have long known for these cowardly attacks," Zubi told Hezbollah's Manar television station.
Official Syrian media said an Israeli aerial strike hit a six-story residential building in the Jaramana district of Damascus.
"I am not confirming or denying anything to do with this matter," Israeli Housing and Construction Minister Yoav Gallant told Israel Radio, adding, "It is good that people like Samir Qantar will not be part of our world."
Kuntar, born in 1962, kept a low public profile after Israel released him. Hezbollah did not say which role Qantar played in the Syrian conflict, but Syrian state media said he was involved in a major offensive earlier this year in Quneitra, near the Syrian Golan Heights.
Rebels in southern Syria also said Qantar was present in battles this year to defend a Syrian air base near the Druze majority city of Sweida, close to the border with Jordan, that rebels sought to capture. Those claims could not be independently verified.
Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked accused Qantar of overseeing covert Hezbollah entrenchment on the Syrian Golan Heights, a strategic plateau overlooking northeastern Israel.
"He set up a broad terror network on the Golan, and it is good that he returned his soul to his creator," Shaked told Israel's Army Radio, without elaborating on any Israeli role.
The Assad loyalist National Defence Forces in Jaramana, a bastion of government support and home to many of Syria's Druze minority as well as Christians, mourned Qantar on its Facebook page.
"Two Israeli warplanes carried out the raid which targeted the building in Jaramana and struck the designated place with four long-range missiles," the NDF said.
In January, an Israeli strike in Syria killed six members of Hezbollah, including a commander and the son of the group's late military leader Imad Moughniyah near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
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