A Bulgarian Government investigation into the bombing of a bus in Burgas in July 2012 has implicated Hizballah. Five Israeli tourists, the bus driver and the suspected bomber were killed (see our Special Report of 19 July 2012). The attack initially appeared to be a suicide bombing, which had raised doubts about the involvement of Hizballah or Tehran, since such tactics would be unusual for them, in contrast to jihadist groups. However, the Bulgarian investigators believe that the perpetrator did not intend to die in the attack.
Hizballah would not have conducted an attack on Israeli targets without specific instructions from Tehran. We believe that elements within the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) who are benefiting from continued sanctions against Tehran are most likely to have ordered the bombing. The attack may have been an attempt to derail international talks on Iran’s nuclear programme, which were making progress at the time.
The investigation has implicated two suspects who are currently believed to be in Lebanon – an Australian and a Canadian national. They have resided in Lebanon for several years and are alleged to have direct links to Hizballah. Bulgaria has requested their arrest, but although Prime Minister Najib Mikati has said the Government will cooperate, it is unlikely that Hizballah will hand over the suspects. The most likely consequence of the accusations will be increasing pressure on the EU to designate Hizballah as a terrorist organisation which would curtail the group’s activities (including fundraising) in Europe. London and Washington are in favour of such action but there remain disagreements within the EU which may still prevent this.
Meanwhile, on 30 January Tel Aviv launched air strikes in Syria targeting a convoy carrying weapons allegedly destined for Hizballah in Lebanon (discussed further in this week’s Israel-Palestine Report). Hizballah criticised the attack, and the bombing in Bulgaria highlights the potential for retaliation as Hizballah and its allies come under pressure. Further Israeli strikes in Syria or in southern Lebanon will increase the threat to Israeli assets abroad.
However, Hizballah’s priority will be to maintain domestic stability ahead of Parliamentary elections later this year and to continue supporting President Assad’s regime in Damascus. It will therefore not seek to provoke a war with Israel. Nonetheless, Hizballah will likely act to support Tehran if Tel Aviv launches strikes against the Iranian nuclear programme, although our assessment remains that Israel would seek to neutralise Hizballah prior to taking such action.