Israel: Fear of escalation after Hizbullah attack

Two Israeli soldiers and one Spaniard killed in strike on Lebanese border

Israel responds to Hizbullah attack with air and ground strikes on southern Lebanon. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Israeli leaders convened on Wednesday night to consider their response after two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven wounded in a Hizbullah attack. The prospects of a major conflagration on the border with Lebanon hangs in the balance.

In the most serious flare-up in years, Hizbullah fighters fired six anti-tank missiles at an Israeli patrol travelling on a civilian road two kilometres from the border, destroying two vehicles. Israel responded with shelling from artillery and tanks at positions inside Lebanon.

A Spanish soldier with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) was also killed during the exchange, presumably from Israeli fire.

Hizbullah took responsibility for the missile attack, saying the operation was in retaliation for an Israeli air strike 10 days ago that killed six of its fighters and a senior Iranian revolutionary guards general in the Syrian Golan Heights.


The fact that Hizbullah targeted Israeli soldiers, avoiding a direct attack on Israeli civilians, reduced the likelihood of a full-scale war.

The Israeli-Lebanese border has been relatively quiet since the 2006 Second Lebanon war between Israel and the Shia Hizbullah, backed by Iran and Syria. But the four-year civil war in Syria, has increased tensions and led to the presence of both Syrian opposition militias and Hizbullah fighters on the Israel-Syria Golan Heights border.

Rocket arsenal

Since the month-long Second Lebanon war, Hizbullah has amassed a vast array of rockets that can reach deep into Israel. It is believed that a new conflict would result in a level of devastation previously unseen on both sides of the border.

The feeling was that neither side seeks such an escalation at this juncture.

Israel, which faces a parliamentary election in March, is still recovering from the war in Gaza last summer. Hizbullah is stretched militarily, with thousands of fighters in Syria helping prop up the regime of Bashar al Assad, and there is growing opposition inside Lebanon to the idea of Hizbullah drawing Israel into another major ground offensive.

On Wednesday night Hizbullah sent a message, via Unifil, that it does not seek a further escalation and it views yesterday’s border attack as “settling the score” with Israel.

Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, responding to the border incident, warned Hizbullah not to test Israel’s patience.

“Whoever is behind today’s attack will pay the full price,” he said. “For some time, Iran via Hizbullah has been trying to establish an additional terrorist front against us from the Golan Heights. The Lebanese government and the Assad regime share responsibility for the consequences of the attacks emanating from their territories against Israel. In all of these events, our mission is to defend the state of Israel.”

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, on a visit to China, urged a tough response.

“We must change the attitude Israel adopted until today,” he said, “and respond to the rocket fire against our sovereign territory very strongly and disproportionately, as China or the US would react to similar attacks.”

Mr Lieberman spoke to his Spanish counterpart, José Manuel García-Margallo, and expressed his condolences over the death of the Spanish peacekeeper.

A Unifil spokesman said the Spanish soldier had been killed in an explosion at a UN base.

The UN special co-ordinator for Lebanon, Sigrid Kaag, expressed "deep concern over the serious deterioration of the security situation" and called on all parties not to destabilise the situation further.

In addition to the attack on the military convoy, Hizbullah also fired mortars at Mount Hermon, forcing Israel to evacuate hundreds of vistors skiing, and at the Druze village of Ghajar, on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Lebanon condemned the Israeli shelling, which targeted a number of border villages.

"Israel's escalation can be an opening to dangerous situations, which do not serve peace and stability in the region," said Lebanese prime minister Tammam Salam.

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss

Mark Weiss is a contributor to The Irish Times based in Jerusalem