Israel Attacks Southern Lebanon After Hezbollah Targets Army Convoy

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A Lebanese army soldier uses his binoculars as smoke from Israeli shelling covers the Lebanese town of al-Majidiyeh on the Lebanese border with Israel in the Wazzani area on January 28, 2015. AFP/Ali Dia

Published Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Updated at 00:35 am (GMT+2): Israel hit Lebanon with a number of rockets after an anti-tank missile was fired at an Israel Occupation Forces (IOF) convoy in the Israeli-occupied Lebanese Shebaa Farms on Wednesday.

The Israeli army said on its Twitter feed that an "initial reports indicate a military vehicle was hit, apparently by an anti-tank missile in the area of Har Dov," using Israel's term for the occupied Shebaa Farms which is also close to the ceasefire line with Syria.

Click here to follow Al-Akhbar English's live blog of the situation.

Lebanon's Hezbollah resistance movement claimed the attack.

"At 11:25 (0925 GMT) this morning, the Quneitra martyrs of the Islamic Resistance (Hezbollah) targeted an Israeli military convoy in the Shebaa Farms composed of several vehicles which was transporting several Zionist soldiers and officers," Hezbollah said in a statement broadcast on the group's Al-Manar television channel

Al-Manar said nine Israeli vehicles were targeted in the attack. Israeli media confirmed that two soldiers had been killed.

There were conflicting reports on whether an Israeli soldier was abducted during the attack. Al-Akhbar English could not independently confirm the information at this time.

The Shebaa Farms area is a mountainous, narrow sliver of land rich in water resources measuring 25 square kilometers (10 square miles). It has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war, although Lebanon has never ceased to call for the restitution of the Shebaa Farms.

An Israeli security source, meanwhile, said their vehicles came under "very heavy fire at close range." Israeli medics confirmed that seven Israeli soldiers were wounded but said none of the injuries were life-threatening.

He said it was not clear whether the vehicles had been hit by an anti-tank missile, a rocket or a mortar, but said Israeli forces had returned fire, hitting targets across the border.

Israeli newspaper the Jerusalem Post said the Israeli army fired at the southern Lebanese village of Kfar Shouba.

Two sources told AFP that more than a dozen shells had been fired on Lebanese border villages and that Israeli warplanes were flying over the area.

"At least 15 shells have been fired against five villages in the south," one security source said, adding that the village of Majidiyeh was hardest hit.

A spokesperson for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which monitors the Lebanese-Israeli border, reported that one of its soldiers, a Spanish citizen, was killed after sustaining serious wounds by shelling in the border village of Abbasieh.

UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said he was unable to specify the source of fire that killed the soldier.

"UNIFIL Force Commander Major General Luciano Portolano is in close contact with all the parties, urging maximum restraint to prevent an escalation," Tenenti added.

Another security source said the Israeli army was firing a new shell into the area about every two minutes, and was also firing artillery.

The Lebanese army is deployed in all five villages that were shelled, but it was unclear whether Hezbollah had a presence there.

Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that mortar shells had hit the village of Ghajar, which straddles the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. It added that the Rosh Pina and Haifa airports had suspended operations.

Images broadcast from the scene showed large plumes of white smoke billowing across the area and police sealed off several roads close to the border in northern Israel.

Meanwhile, Lebanese news website El-Nashra reported that two Israeli warships had entered Lebanese territorial waters. Al-Mayadeen news channel said that Israeli jets flying at very low attitudes over South Lebanon, while the Lebanese National News Agency (NNA) said that an Israeli drone was flying over the region of Marjeyoun.

Retaliation for Israeli attacks in Syria

The attack came hours after Israeli aircraft struck alleged Syrian army artillery positions early on Wednesday, and one day after rockets were launched at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

On January 18, an Israeli airstrike on the Syrian city of Quneitra killed six fighters of Lebanon’s resistance movement Hezbollah, including a commander and the son of assassinated senior commander Imad Mughniyeh, as well as Iranian Revolutionary Guards General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi.

The Hezbollah brigade which carried out the attack, the Quneitra martyrs of the Islamic Resistance, was named in reference to the deadly strike in Quneitra, indicating that Wednesday's attack was in retaliation for the killing of its members.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had previously warned Israel against any “stupid” moves in Lebanon and Syria, vowing to retaliate and make sure Israel pays the price for any aggression against the neighboring countries.

Israeli airstrikes on Syria "target the whole of the resistance axis," Nasrallah said in reference to Syria, Iran and his government, who are sworn enemies of Israel.

"The repeated bombings that struck several targets in Syria are a major violation, and we consider that any strike against Syria is a strike against the whole of the resistance axis, not just against Syria," he said, adding the "axis is capable of responding" anytime.

Since the airstrike, troops and civilians in northern Israeli-occupied territories of Palestine and the occupied Golan Heights have been on heightened alert and Israel has deployed an Iron Dome rocket interceptor unit near the Syrian border.

Israel occupied parts of Lebanon for 22 years until 2000 and the two countries are still technically at war.

The last Israeli war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, most of them civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

Nasrallah is expected to deliver a speech on January 30 regarding the Israeli strikes.

Political responses

The UN Security Council met Wednesday in an emergency session to discuss ways to defuse tensions between Israel and Lebanon, after France requested the urgent talks in the 15-member council.

"Our objective is to engage toward de-escalation and to prevent further escalation of the situation," French Ambassador Francois Delattre told reporters as he went into the meeting.

The council was meeting behind closed doors to hear a report from a senior peacekeeping official overseeing UNIFIL operations.

In Beirut, celebratory gunfire rang out after the attack, while residents in the southern suburbs of the city, where Hezbollah is strong, packed their bags and prepared to evacuate neighborhoods that were heavily bombed by Israel in 2006.

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the Israeli military escalation in south Lebanon and expressed concern regarding the “aggressive intentions expressed by the Israeli officials and the deterioration of the situation it could lead to in Lebanon,” the NNA reported

“Lebanon deems the international family responsible for repressing any Israeli tendency to gamble with the security and stability in the area.”

Former Lebanese President Michel Sleiman warned in a statement on Facebook against “actions” that would lead to a breach of UN Resolution 1701. Resolution 1701 marked the ceasefire that ended the 2006 July War between Israel and Hezbollah.

He also stressed that Lebanon has “no interest” in conflicts that would allow Israel and "terrorist groups" to take advantage of Lebanon’s “relatively stable political situation, which has been enhanced lately by internal dialogue.”

Sleiman also called for avoiding actions that would help achieve Israeli goals, saying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted war for "elections purposes." Israeli legislative elections are due to take place in March.

Lebanese Forces leader and presidential candidate Samir Geagea said in a statement that “what happened today on the border between Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories will have dangerous implications for the Lebanese people as a whole,” the NNA quoted him as saying.

Geagea accused Hezbollah of putting the country in danger, asking: “How did Hezbollah allow itself to make security and military related decisions that the Lebanese do not agree with and which will have huge repercussions?”

Meanwhile, the secretary general of the Popular Nasserist Organization, Osama Saad commended in a statement “the heroic operation by the Islamic resistance which targeted a column of the Zionist army’s military vehicles in the occupied Shebaa farms.”

Saad called on the Lebanese to “stand as one rank with the resistance in expulsing the occupying forces from the Shebaa farms to liberating every inch of the occupied lands.”

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard spoke out in support of Hezbollah, and was quoted by Al-Manar as saying that they "will fight next to the Islamic resistance movement Hezbollah in all its fights against the Zionist State."

Wednesday's attack was hailed by the Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"We affirm Hezbollah's right to respond to the Israeli occupation," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, while Jihad's Quds Brigade hailed the attack as "heroic."

Meanwhile, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said the head of UNIFIL was in close contact with all parties and had urged "maximum restraint" to prevent an escalation.

UNIFIL has more than 10,000 troops in Lebanon after its expansion under Resolution 1701.

It operates alongside Lebanese troops who are deployed in the south to keep peace near the frontier.

However, Netanyahu said Israel was ready to act "with force" following the border attack.

Referring to the bloody Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip this summer, Netanyahu added: "I suggest that all those who are challenging us on our northern border, look at what happened in Gaza, not far from the city of Sderot."

"Hamas suffered the most serious blow since it was founded this past summer and the [IOF] is prepared to act on every front."

Netanyahu's office accused Iran of being behind what it described as a "criminal terror attack."

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, speaking in Beijing, said Israel should respond in a "forceful and disproportionate manner." According to Haaretz, Lieberman added Israel expected to receive help from its allies.

Army spokesman Brigadier General Moti Almoz warned Israel was considering further action.

"This is not necessarily the last response," he wrote on Twitter.

Israel's Ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor urged the 15-member council to "unequivocally and publicly condemn Hezbollah" in a letter also sent to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The United States stood by Israel Wednesday.

"We support Israel's legitimate right to self-defense and continue to urge all parties to respect the blue line between Israel and Lebanon," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.

"We urge all parties to refrain from any action that could escalate the situation," Psaki said, adding Washington was closely monitoring the situation.

However, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini appealed for an "immediate cessation of hostilities."

Regional analysts said they did not expect events to spiral.

"Netanyahu most likely realizes that a prolonged military engagement in Lebanon could cost him the election," said Ayham Kamel and Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group.

"Instead, Israel will pursue limited actions targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the low-scale, tit-for-tat exchanges will not broaden into a wider war."

(Al-Akhbar, AFP, Reuters)

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