Israeli spy catalogues mistakes in Lebanon


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

The Shi’ite Hezbollah movement this week released a new three-part documentary on the 2006 capture of two Israeli soldiers, which sparked a 34-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The film includes interviews with several Israeli officials and an Israeli soldier wounded in the incident.

Israel’s Government Press Office, GPO, says it is investigating journalist Michaela Moni of the Italian ANSA news agency, for possible ties to the organization. Moni conducted the interviews, saying they were for Italian outlets, not Hezbollah. In any case, the fact that Hezbollah was able to arrange the interviews gave it a propaganda victory.

It was just the latest example of what is called in Israel, the “Lebanese swamp.” Israel fought two wars in Lebanon, in 1982 and 2006, and spent 15 years controlling a “security zone” in south Lebanon, before pulling out in 2000. In a book just translated into English, called Window to the Backyard, Israel’s former Mossad station chief, Yair Ravid, outlines a series of Israeli mistakes in Lebanon.

“There are several reasons for Israel’s failure in Lebanon,” Ravid told The Media Line. “Ariel Sharon (Israel’s Defense Minister in 1982) in his megalomania thought that he could get a separate peace with Lebanon, Menachem Begin (then Prime Minister) naively thought our help to the Christians would lead to a separate peace, and the Mossad on a political level didn’t understand Lebanon.”

Ravid, 71, was responsible for developing ties between Israel and the Christian villages in Lebanon. Those contacts eventually led to the creation of the South Lebanon Army (SLA), thousands of whom fled to Israel when Israel left Lebanon in 2000. About 2700 former SLA members live in Israel today.

“Israel divided the SLA into two groups – the officers and the regular soldiers,” Julie Abu Araj, whose father was killed fighting for the SLA and today lives in Israel told The Media Line. “The officers got a lot of assistance from the Israeli government, but the regular soldiers got much less.”

Araj came to Israel when she was 12, and speaks perfect Hebrew. She feels comfortable in Israel, although sometimes misses her home town. She has become active in advocating for the rights of former SLA fighters, some of whom feel abandoned by Israel.

Successive Israeli governments failed to understand the complexities of Lebanon, made up of Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, Sunni Muslims and Druze. Even today, Lebanon has been without a president since 2014, as the political blocs have been unable to agree.

Lebanon today is also struggling to house and feed more than one million refugees from Syria who have flooded the neighboring country of just four million. Hizbullah is the kingmaker in Lebanese politics, although Hizbullah is currently bogged down in fighting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli intelligence has repeatedly warned that Hezbollah has upwards of 100,000 rockets that could hit any part of Israel. Israel in turn has warned Hezbollah it will destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure if there is another attack.

“Right now Hezbollah has no interest in heating things up because they are busy in Syria,” Ravid said. “They will only start up with us if it helps their sponsor Iran.”

Ravid’s book also offers some insights into what it is like to be an Israeli spy. He writes what it is like to recruit agents, describing what qualities a good spymaster needs.

“Among the most important characteristics an operator of agents must be equipped with are compassion and the ability to listen to their operatives’ difficulties and problems, alongside recognizing and understanding the operatives’ family structure and the relations within their families,” he writes. “On occasion an operator has to offer agents he operates a gesture. Bestow them with gifts for personal or family occasions, and during holidays. Tributes that are unexpected, that surprise the agents, bring fast return on the investment.”

He also writes that the new generation of spies relies more on technology and les son human interaction.

“I see myself as one who belongs to the old generation of agents’ operators. This is the generation which maintained close ties and often friendly ties with the Arab population. I was and still feel at home in many Arabs’ households, and many Arabs are very welcome in my home. These kinds of relationships and connections give the operator the right tools to make him an Intelligence officer,” he writes. “The younger generation of agents’ operators which is currently active is disconnected from the field and from the Arab population. This generation knows the use of computers much better than my generation, but the remoteness of the field makes them intelligence technicians and not intelligence officers.”

Ravid has not been back to Beirut since 1985. When asked if Israel currently has spies in Lebanon, he answered, “I certainly hope so.”

Netanyahu: Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria


Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, acknowledging for the first time such attacks against suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

Though formally neutral on Syria's civil war, Israel has frequently pledged to prevent shipments of advanced weaponry to the Iranian-backed group, while stopping short of confirming reports of specific air operations.

Visiting Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights near the frontier with Syria, Netanyahu said: “We act when we need to act, including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry.”

Netanyahu did not specify what kind of strikes Israel had conducted in Syria. He also gave no timeframe or other details regarding the strikes.

Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in Syria in February but has indicated it could still launch attacks there if it sees a threat from Hezbollah, which holds sway over southern Lebanon and whose fighters have been allied with President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli leaders have sought assurances from Russia, which sent forces to Syria last year to help Assad, that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to be bolstered by the partial military withdrawal that Moscow announced last month.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent any accidental clash between their aircraft over Syrian territory.

Hezbollah and Israel last fought a war in 2006 that included rocket strikes inside Israel and an Israeli air and ground offensive in Lebanon.

Israeli leaders have said that since that conflict, Hezbollah has built up and improved the range of a rocket arsenal that can now strike deep inside Israel.

Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon


Hezbollah set off a bomb targeting Israeli forces at the Lebanese border on Monday in an apparent response to the killing in Syria last month of a prominent commander, triggering Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon.

Israel has struck its Iran-backed Shi'ite enemy Hezbollah in Syria several times, killing a number of fighters and destroying weapons it believes were destined for the group, whose support for President Bashar al-Assad has been crucial in the country's civil war.

Israel's army said Monday's blast, targeting military vehicles in the Shebaa farms area, promptedIsraeli forces to respond with artillery fire. It made no mention of casualties.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the explosive device had been detonated in the Shebaa farms area and carried out by a group whom it named after Samir Qantar, a commander killed in December. The group has accused Israel of killing Qantar in an air strike in Syria, and vowed to retaliate. 

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, urged both sides to avoid an escalation, saying it had stepped up patrols on the ground after the incident.

In a statement, head of mission Major-General Luciano Portolano urged both sides “to exercise utmost restraint against any provocation.”

Lebanese media said Israeli shelling had hit the nearby town of Al Wazzani and other areas, with reports of material damage but no serious injuries.

Witnesses said at least 10 Israeli shells had hit Al Wazzani shortly after the blast.

A Reuters witness said the shelling had stopped later in the day. Al Manar TV reported that calm had returned to the Shebaa area.

An Israeli air strike killed Qantar on Dec. 20 in Damascus, Hezbollah said. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said a week later that retaliation would be inevitable.

Israel stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed Qantar, but welcomed the death of the militant leader, who had been jailed in Israel in 1979 and repatriated to Lebanon in a 2008 prisoner swap.

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 Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting on the side of Assad in Syria's civil war. The conflict has exacted a heavy toll on Hezbollah, with many hundreds of its fighters killed.

In January last year, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander and the son of the group's late military commander Imad Moughniyah. An Iranian general was also killed in that attack. 

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed later that month in one of the most violent clashes between the two sides since a 2006 war. 

Israel and Hezbollah have avoided large scale confrontation along their 80-km (50-mile) frontier since the 34-day war in 2006, which killed 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon. 

Nasrallah has made repeated threats against Israel since then, part of what is seen as a calibrated policy of deterrence.

Blaming operative’s death on Israel, Hezbollah chief vows revenge


Hassan Nasrallah, the top leader of the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, blamed the killing of operative Samir Kuntar on Israel and said his group would retaliate.

“We reserve the right to respond to this assassination at the time and place of our choosing,” Nasrallah said Monday evening in a televised speech from Beirut, the Times of Israel reported. The newspaper cited an English translation from a journalist with the al-Mayadeen Arabic satellite television channel.

Nasrallah’s statement came hours after a Syrian rebel group claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed Kuntar, who was released in a 2008 prisoner swap after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison for his role in a deadly terrorist attack.

“We have no doubt that the Israeli enemy was behind the assassination in a blatant military operation,” Nasrallah said, according to the Naharnet news site.

Israel has not confirmed whether or not it was involved in the attack, but several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

After Israel talks, Pentagon chief says: ‘Friends can disagree’


U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter never expected to win over Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the merits of the nuclear agreement with Iran but tried to put a brave face on their sometimes blunt, closed-door exchange on Tuesday.

“We don't agree on everything. And the prime minister made it quite clear that he disagreed with us on with respect to the nuclear deal,” Carter said at an airbase in Jordan.

“But friends can disagree.”

Since arriving in Israel on Sunday, Carter has sought to look beyond the political tensions between Israel and the United States that have only deepened since last week's announcement of a deal curbing Iran's nuclear program.

Carter, the first U.S. cabinet secretary to visit Israel since the deal, traveled to the northern border with Lebanon on Monday and promised to help counter Iranian proxies like Hezbollah.

Israel fears Iran-backed groups like Hezbollah will benefit from Iranian sanctions relief.

Netanyahu looked stern as he received Carter in Jerusalem and the two did not deliver expected public remarks to gathered reporters. Once behind closed doors, the prime minister, without referring to notes, detailed his objections.

“The Secretary did of course respond to those (objections) … we just agreed to disagree on certain issues,” a senior U.S. defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the talks.

The official described Netanyahu as “blunt” and “passionate,” offering the same kinds of arguments privately that he has made at length in public. In his latest U.S. media offensive, Netanyahu has urged lawmakers to hold out for a better deal.

The U.S. Congress has 60 days from Monday to decide whether to approve or reject the deal. Republicans who control Congress have lined up in opposition, but Obama says he will veto any attempt to block it.

Israel has a strong army, is believed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal, and receives about $3 billion a year in military-related support from the United States.

That amount is expected to increase following the Iran deal, but the U.S. official said that issue did not come up.

“There was no discussion of money at all,” the official said.

Carter visited Jordan on Tuesday and will travel next to Saudi Arabia, which is engaged in a contest for power with Iran stretching across the region. Like Israel, Saudi Arabia fears the deal will bolster Iran's allies.

Cyprus may have foiled major attack after ammonia find


Cyprus believes it may have foiled a major explosives attack, a security source said, in seizing nearly five tons of chemical fertilizer for a planned action Israel says bears the hallmarks of the Hezbollah guerrilla group.

Authorities detained a Lebanese-Canadian in late May after finding ammonium nitrate, a potential explosive, in his basement. Initially cited as two tons, security sources told Reuters on Tuesday the amount was in fact closer to five tons.

“With those kind of quantities something bad could have happened, and it was foiled,” a security source told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

The suspect, a 26-year-old who arrived in Cyprus in the third week of May, was arrested in the coastal town of Larnaca on May 27 after a police raid on premises where he was staying.

Ammonium nitrate is a fertilizer but if mixed with other substances can become a very powerful explosive.

Fertilizer-based bombs remain the explosive of choice for many militant groups across the world and have been used in some of the most destructive attacks in recent years.

They were used in the 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 and a year later in attacks on the HSBC bank headquarters and the British Consulate in Istanbul in which 32 people died.

JEANS AND T-SHIRT

A Reuters witness in court at an initial hearing before journalists were asked to leave saw a young man of medium build with short dark cropped hair wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans.

“He…is denying everything,” the security source said.

Authorities found the ammonium nitrate in the basement of a two-story house in a quiet suburb of the coastal town of Larnaca. The house's owner, a non-Cypriot, was being sought for questioning but not believed to be in Cyprus.

Sources say they are investigating a possible link with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006 and remains one of Israel's most active adversaries.

Cypriot authorities have said little about the case, but citing information he said he had received from Nicosia, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the fertilizer was destined for bombs.

“These were apparently meant to be ready for attacks on us,” he told reporters on Monday, referring to Israelis or Jews in Cyprus or elsewhere in Europe. He added that the explosives might also been intended for attacks against Western targets.

Cyprus is a popular holiday destination for Israelis. The island is in the EU and hosts two British military bases.

The island has little militant-related activity despite its proximity to the Middle East. Its last major security incident was a botched attack on the Israeli embassy in 1988, which killed three people.

Israel gets into gritty detail to warn off Hezbollah


An Israeli official made unusually detailed allegations on Wednesday of secret Hezbollah guerrilla sites in Lebanese villages, driving home its warning that civilians there risk bearing the brunt of any future war.

Though neither side appears keen on coming to blows, Hezbollah has been building up its arsenal since the last, inconclusive conflict of 2006 and Israel regards the Iranian-backed Shi'ite guerrillas as its most immediate threat.

Worried that thousands of precision-guided Hezbollah rockets could paralyse their vital infrastructure, Israeli planners have long threatened to launch a blitz against suspected launchers in Lebanon, even if that means harming civilians.

A senior Israeli intelligence official took the unusual step on Wednesday of showing foreign correspondents aerial photographs of two Lebanese border villages, Muhaybib and Shaqra, with dozens of locations of alleged rocket silos, guerrilla tunnels, and anti-tank and gun nests marked out.

Each of the some 200 Shi'ite villages in southern Lebanon “is a military stronghold, even though you can walk in the street and you'll see nothing”, said the official, who could not be named in print under military regulations.

Hezbollah, whose fighters are helping Damascus battle the Syrian insurgency, says its capabilities have improved since the 2006 war with Israel but does not publish deployment details.

The Shi'ite movement, which is a major military and political power in Lebanon and has never accepted the existence of the state of Israel, describes itself as a defensive force for a country far outgunned by its southern foe.

Should there be another conflict with Hezbollah, the Israeli official said, Lebanese civilians would be allowed to evacuate, but not at the cost of Israel suffering unbridled rocket salvoes.

“It is a win-win situation for Hezbollah. If we attack them, we kill civilians. If we don't attack because there are civilians, it is good for Hezbollah as well,” the official said.

In 2006, Israel killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, most of them civilians, according to the United Nations. Hezbollah killed 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers within Lebanese territory.

The toll on non-combatants spurred a U.N. truce resolution that called for Hezbollah to be stripped of weapons. It also called for an end to Israeli overflights of Lebanon, which continue.

According to regional security sources, Israel has over the past two years repeatedly bombed Hezbollah-bound missile shipments from Syria.

The Israeli official urged greater foreign intervention against a combustible arms build-up.

“I know that on the first day of the next war, the international community will stand up to say: Stop this war,” he said. “And I have a different suggestion. Why wait for the first day of the war? Why not avoid this war?”

Iran’s allies, not atoms, preoccupy Israeli generals


While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thunders against a looming Iranian nuclear deal, his defense chiefs see a more pressing menace from Tehran's guerrilla allies.

Chief among these is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that fought Israeli forces to a stand-still in their 2006 war and has since expanded its arsenal and honed its skills helping Damascus battle the Syria insurgency.

Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel's Intelligence Ministry, accused Iran on Tuesday of “seeking footholds” from Syria to Yemen to Egypt's Sinai and the Palestinian territories. But he deemed Hezbollah a foe as formidable as the conventional Arab armies that clashed with Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

“The only entity that can challenge us with a surprise attack on any scale nowadays is Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ben-Barak told a conference organized by the Israel Defense journal.

Israel believes Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles capable of paralyzing its civilian infrastructure. Seeking to deter the guerrillas, Israeli generals have threatened to devastate Lebanon should there be another full-on conflict.

In the interim, Lebanese and Syrian sources report regular Israeli air force sorties as part of an apparent effort to monitor, and at times destroy, weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

A Jan. 18 air strike that killed an Iranian general and several Hezbollah operatives in Syria's Golan Heights, northeast of Israel, suggested the Lebanese guerrillas have been setting up a second front close to Jordan, Israel's security partner.

An Iranian-backed Hezbollah presence in the Golan “will pose a very big problem for us in the future”, Ben-Barak said.

Two Western diplomats who track Israel's military assessed that it was now busiest securing the Lebanon and Syria borders.

“I don't think anyone's looking for escalation, but the potential for this to spiral out of control is high,” one diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

When Israel's military intelligence chief, Major-General Herzi Halevy, visited Washington in March, as world powers and Iran entered the final stretch of nuclear negotiations, he urged U.S. care on inadvertently fuelling regional instability.

“What he was really interested in getting across was the military threat from groups like Hezbollah, the (Tehran-backed) Houthis in Yemen, and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) in Syria,” one of Halevy's American hosts said.

Israel has condemned as insufficient a proposed nuclear deal, whose deadline is June 30, and under which Iran would scale down its disputed projects in return for sanctions relief.

Hezbollah says Iran nuclear agreement ‘rules out specter of regional war’


The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah said on Monday that a framework nuclear agreement that Iran reached with world powers last week rules out the specter of regional war.

“There is no doubt that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria's al-Ikhbariya television.

“The agreement, God willing, rules out the specter of regional war and world war,” he said.

The tentative accord, struck on Thursday after eight days of talks in Switzerland, clears the way for a settlement to allay Western fears that Iran could build an atomic bomb, with economic sanctions on Tehran being lifted in return.

Nasrallah said the accord would prevent conflict as “the Israeli enemy was always threatening to bomb Iranian facilities and that bombing would definitely lead to a regional war.”

The Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah was founded with Iranian help in the 1980s to fight Israel in Lebanon. It has grown into a powerful political and military force and is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad's army in Syria's civil war.

Two soldiers dead, seven wounded as Hezbollah hits Israeli tank


Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed on Wednesday in an exchange of fire between Hezbollah and Israel that has raised the threat of a full-blown conflict between the militant Islamist group and Israel.

In the biggest escalation since a 2006 war, the soldiers were killed when Hezbollah fired a missile at a convoy of Israeli military vehicles on the frontier with Lebanon.

The peacekeeper, serving with a U.N. monitoring force in southern Lebanon, was killed as Israel responded with air strikes and artillery fire, a U.N. spokesman and Spanish officials said.

Hezbollah said one of its brigades in the area had carried out the attack, which appeared to be in retaliation for a Jan. 18 Israeli air strike in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members and an Iranian general.

Tensions in the region, where the frontiers of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet and militant groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are active, have been bubbling for months but have boiled over in the past 10 days.

The Israeli military confirmed the death of the soldiers, who were driving along a road next to the fence that marks the hilly frontier. Hospital officials said a further seven had been wounded, although none had life-threatening injuries.

Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which employs more than 10,000 troops, said the peacekeeper's death was under investigation.

The U.N. special coordinator for Lebanon urged all parties to refrain from any further destabilization of the situation, while Lebanon's prime minister said his country was committed to the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war.

The 80 km (50 mile) frontier has largely been quiet since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israelfought a 34-day war in which 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon were killed.

Since the end of the war with Hamas militants in Gaza last year, Israel has warned of frictions on the northern border, including the possibility that Hezbollah might dig tunnels to infiltrate Israel. In recent days it has moved more troops and military equipment into the area.

A burnt vehicle is seen near the village of Ghajar on Israel's border with Lebanon January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Maruf Khatib

RISING THREAT

A retired Israeli army officer, Major-General Israel Ziv, said he believed Wednesday's assault was an attempt by Hezbollah to draw Israel more deeply into the war in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Assad.

“Israel needs to protect its interests but not take any unnecessary steps that may pull us into the conflict in Syria,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces a parliamentary election on March 17, said Israel was “prepared to act powerfully on all fronts”, adding: “Security comes before everything else.”

His office accused Iran of being behind what was described as a “criminal terror attack”. Iran is a major funder of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite group headed by Hassan Nasrallah.

In a communique, Hezbollah described Wednesday's operation as “statement number one”, indicating that a further response was possible. Nasrallah is expected to announce the group's formal reaction to Israel's Jan. 18 air strike on Friday.

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.

In Gaza, Palestinian militant groups praised Hezbollah.

It remains to be seen whether Israel and Hezbollah will back away from further confrontation. With an Israeli election looming and Hezbollah deeply involved in support of Assad in Syria, there would appear to be little interest in a wider conflict for either side.

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.”

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

Hezbollah says Assad’s allies have right to respond to Israeli attacks in Syria


Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday that Israeli strikes inside Syria were also an aggression against Syria's regional allies and they had the right to retaliate.

“The frequent attacks on different sites in Syria is a major breach. We consider (those) hostilities (to be) against all the resistance axis,” he told the Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV.

“(Retaliation) is an open issue … It is not only Syria's right to respond but also it is the right of the axis of resistance to respond. When this right will be executed is subject to certain criteria … it could happen any time.”

Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions consider themselves an “axis of resistance” against Israel.

Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and has sent hundreds of combatants to fight alongside his forces in the nearly four-year civil war.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the nearly four-year civil war, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for Hezbollah.

In December, Syria said Israeli jets had bombed areas near Damascus airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon. Israel does not publicly confirm bombing missions.

Hezbollah, created in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation in Lebanon, fought a 33-day war with Israel in 2006 in which it fired thousands of rockets that hit deep into Israel.

Nasrallah said his group was ready for any possible future war with Israel despite being engaged in the war in Syria.

“If the Israelis think that the resistance is weakened or exhausted …then they are mistaken.”

Report: Iran ordered Hezbollah to carry out attack on Israel over nuclear facility bombing


Iran instructed Hezbollah to attack Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon in retaliation for the “bombing” of Iran’s Parchin nuclear facility, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The report Friday in the al-Rai newspaper cites high-level Washington-based European diplomats, who said a “foreign country” was responsible for the bombing of the military base and suspected nuclear facility.

The report also says that Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran has been conducting tests at Parchin. The bombing thwarted the tests, according to the report.

Hezbollah said Wednesday the attack on Lebanon’s border with Israel that left two Israeli soldiers injured was a “message” for Israel.

“This is a message. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon, our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheik Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, told Lebanese OTV television late Tuesday, Reuters reported.

Satellite images taken of Parchin after the explosion at the military facility show damage consistent with an air attack, defense expert Ronen Solomon told Israel Channel 2 and Defense Magazine.

Hezbollah says border attack was message to Israel


An attack by Hezbollah on Lebanon's border with Israel which wounded two Israeli soldiers was a message that the group remained ready to confront its old foe despite its engagement in Syria's civil war, the group's deputy leader said.

The soldiers were wounded by a bomb planted by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in the Shebaa hills, drawing Israeli artillery fire in response. It was the first time Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Israeli army since 2006, when the two sides fought a 33-day war.

“This is a message.. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheikh Naim Qassem told Lebanese OTV television late on Tuesday.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 50-mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 conflict.

Hezbollah members have been fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war. The move by Hezbollah, which is backed by Shi'ite Iran, has helped turn the tide of the war in Syria against insurgents seeking to oust Assad.

The group said it took the decision to fight in Syria to prevent jihadi fighters, like those from Nusra Front and Islamic State which seized parts of Syria and Iraq, from advancing into Lebanon.

On Sunday, 10 of the group's fighters were killed during a battle with hundreds of Nusra Front militants on the border in eastern Lebanon.

Reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Mariam Karouny and Janet Lawrence

Hezbollah bomb wounds two Israeli soldiers, Israel shells south Lebanon


Lebanese Hezbollah fighters detonated a bomb on Lebanon's border with Israel on Tuesday, wounding two Israeli soldiers and drawing artillery fire in response.

The incident in the Shebaa hills area marked the first time that Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Israeli army since 2006, when the two sides fought a 33-day war

The Israeli army said in a statement that two soldiers were wounded in the attack. Initial reports indicated they had been deliberately targeted, it said.

Hezbollah said its fighters detonated the bomb.

Israeli artillery responded with barrages and Lebanese witnesses said about 30 shells fell in the vicinity of the attack.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 49 mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet that the soldiers had prevented an attack, but he did not elaborate.

“We have demonstrated that we respond with force to any attempt to harm us, whether it is in the south, the north or any other sector,” he said.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 50 mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 war.

Israel is on alert for any spillover from the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where Hezbollah forces are fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

Reporting by Mariam Karouny and Oliver Holmes in Beirut, and Dan Williams and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem, Editing by Luke Baker and Angus MacSwan

Israel raises alarm over Islamist militants on its frontiers


Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al-Qaida, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al-Qaida.

Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it's very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah's intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad's forces to further reclaim the initiative.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters (yards) of Nusra fighters.

The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where Nusra and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad's forces.

After three years of fighting, opposition forces control patches of territory to the west and south of Damascus, including a portion of the 375-km (225-mile) border with Jordan.

That has allowed thousands of foreign fighters from both the Arab world and Europe to cross into Syria, including an estimated 2,000 Jordanians. At least 10 Israeli Arabs have also gone to Syria, five of whom were later detained after returning home, according to Oreg.

RISKY CORNER

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them. It consists of an area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 km (45 miles) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River with Jordan.

About 1,200 soldiers are involved in monitoring the separation zone, in what has been for most of the past 40 years one of the world's quietest peacekeeping missions. That changed with the uprising against Assad, and the area is now precarious.

Stephane Cohen, the former chief liaison between the Israeli army and the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, said the U.N.'s mandate was now meaningless.

With the Philippines, Ireland and other contributing nations set to withdraw from the mission, it was questionable whether the United Nations could continue monitoring the area.

“UNDOF is collapsing and the mandate has not been relevant for at least two years,” said Cohen, now a defense analyst with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

“Eighty percent of the border area is now in the hands of (Syrian) opposition forces,” he said, adding that if more nations withdrew, the militant presence would only rise.

For now, Israel is merely remaining vigilant.

“We have to be very cautious about our retaliation policy,” said Oreg, emphasizing that the priority should be to keep careful tabs on the Nusra Front and other groups' capabilities, while sharing any intelligence judiciously.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

Despite Syria rift, Hezbollah pledges full support to Hamas


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organizations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah's stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi'ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel's military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighboring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi'ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

“We call for all differences and sensitivities on other issues to be put to one side,” Nasrallah said in reference to the rift over Syria. “Gaza is above all considerations”

His speeches are usually delivered via video-link from an undisclosed location, but in a sign of confidence the Hezbollah leader spoke on Friday for an hour in front of hundreds of supporters at Hezbollah's Martyr's Compound in the south of the Lebanese capital.

“We say to our brothers in Gaza: We are with you, by your side, trusting in your strength and your victory. We will do all that we believe to be our duty, on all fronts,” he said.

Nasrallah did not specify what support would be given, but he pointedly said that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in the past had supplied “all factions of the Palestinian resistance, financially, materially, politically…with weapons, logistical help and training.”

Rockets fired from south Lebanon hit Israeli territory


Two rockets were fired into northern Israel from Lebanon on Friday, and Israel's army responded with artillery fire, Lebanon's news agency and security sources said, adding it was unclear who was behind the initial attack.

Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of Hezbollah, a Shi'ite Muslim group that battled Israel seven years ago and is engaged in Syria's civil war in support of President Bashar Assad; but there are also Palestinian groups in the same area.

Lebanon's news agency NNA said the rockets were fired towards “occupied territories” at 6.30 a.m. from the Hasbaya area in Lebanon.

There have been several exchanges across the border in the past year.

In December, rockets launched from Lebanon struck northern Israel, provoking a response across a border that had been largely quiet since a war in 2006. In August, Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, an organisation linked to al Qaeda claimed a rocket barrage from Lebanon.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said a lone rocket launched from either Lebanon or Syria landed in Israel's far north ending up in an open area near a farming community close to the border with Lebanon. The army responded with artillery fire, she said.

There were five rockets fired in total from southern Lebanon, Lebanese security sources said. Two entered Israel, one fell into Lebanese territory and two more were intercepted.

An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed that Israel responded with artillery fire. Israel shot back around 25 shells, the Lebanese security sources said.

Israeli Chief military spokesman Brigadier-General Motti Almoz said a rocket fell near Kibbutz Kfar Yuval and that the military was checking for more details on the source of the firing. There were no casualties or damage.

Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have launched hundreds of rockets into Israel since the start of an Israeli offensive four days ago, but Kfar Yuval is almost certainly out of range of those rockets.

At least 82 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the offensive, which Israel says it launched to end persistent rocket attacks on civilians. Some rockets have reached Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other cities.

Reporting by Sylvia Westall in Beirut and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; editing by Ralph Boulton

Israel concerned about any U.S.-Iran cooperation in Iraq


Israel voiced concern on Monday at the prospect of its closest ally, Washington, cooperating with its what it considers its deadliest foe, Iran, to stave off a sectarian break-up of Iraq.

But, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters, the United States and other major powers have pledged that any such cooperation would not set back their drive to curb Tehran's nuclear program.

The Obama administration said on Sunday it was considering talks with Iran about the Iraqi crisis. Iranian officials have voiced openness to working with the Americans in helping Baghdad repel a Sunni Muslim insurgency.

While deploring the “ungodly horror” of the bloodshed in Iraq, Steinitz said Iran should not be helped to extend its sway in Iran where fellow Shi'ite Muslims form the majority.

That, he said would give Tehran an arc of control running through Syria, where the Iranians back embattled President Bashar Assad, and on to Lebanon, where they have powerful allies in the Hezbollah militia.

“And we would especially not want for a situation to be created where, because both the United States and Iran support the government of (Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri) al-Maliki, it softens the American positions on the issue which is most critical for the peace of the world, which is the Iranian nuclear issue,” Steinitz said in an interview.

Even before the Iraq crisis, Israel was concerned about Iran's nuclear talks with Washington and five other powers, aimed at ensuring Iran is not developing atomic weapons capability.

Israel fears Tehran would be able to shake off international sanctions built up over the last decade.

SEPARATION

Steinitz was cautiously optimistic that the negotiations would be unaffected by any international involvement in Iraq.

“We are troubled, but we have been made to understand by everyone – the Americans and the British and the French and the Germans – that a total separation will be enforced,” he said.

Steinitz said such a separation of policies would be similar to Russia's participation alongside Western powers in the Iranian nuclear talks even as it spars with them over Ukraine.

Neither Washington nor Tehran, old adversaries with often contrary interests in the Middle East, have articulated how they might cooperate in Iraq.

Washington has no appetite to send troops back to the country it occupied for almost a decade, but the Obama administration has suggested it could carry out air strikes against insurgents.

Steinitz, who regularly confers with the United States about the Iranian nuclear negotiations and other regional issues, said he did not know what actions the Americans might take in Iraq.

Western diplomats suspect Iran has in the past sent some of its Revolutionary Guards, an elite force separate from the regular army, to train and advise the Iraqi army or allied militia. During its occupation of Iraq, the United States said some attacks on its forces had Iranian help.

Iran says it has never sent forces to Iraq but might now assist the Maliki government with advisers and weaponry.

Another Israeli security official, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said deeper Iranian commitment in Iraq could make Tehran more accommodating in the nuclear talks as it might feel over-extended and reluctant to spark further crises.

“They would have to redirect resources, perhaps even pull their forces out of Syria to send to Iraq instead,” the second Israeli official said. “Let them sink into that new quagmire.”

Steinitz rejected this view, however, saying: “I would never look to solve one travesty with another travesty.”

Editing by Robin Pomeroy

Four Israeli troops hurt in Golan blast, Israel blames Syria


A roadside bomb wounded four Israeli soldiers patrolling the Golan Heights on Tuesday, and Israel retaliated with artillery fire on Syrian army positions, the army said.

It was not clear who had planted the bomb in an area where the Syrian military, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad all have a presence.

Violence in Syria has spilled over the Golan frontline in the past but Tuesday's casualties were the worst Israel has suffered in there since the Syrian uprising began three years ago, army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said.

Noticing suspicious movement near the Golan separation fence, the soldiers left their patrol vehicle to inspect it on foot and were hit by an explosion, Lerner said. One was seriously hurt and the others had moderate to light injuries.

Israeli artillery shelled Syrian army positions on the far side of the fence in retaliation, Lerner said.

“We see the Syrian army as responsible, and that is indicated by our response to the attack,” he said.

His language suggested Israel was blaming Damascus because it had formal authority over the Syrian-held side of the Golan.

Lerner declined to be drawn on whether Israel knew who specifically had planted the bomb. Two weeks ago, Israel said it foiled a similar attack when its forces shot two Hezbollah men near the Golan fence. Hezbollah has fighters in Syria helping Assad combat a rebellion led by Sunni Islamist insurgents.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said the Syrian-held side of the Golan was “filled” with al Qaeda-linked rebels and Hezbollah guerrillas who, while at each other's throats in Syria, shared deep enmity for the Jewish state.

“This presents a new challenge for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told his Likud faction.

Israel has accused Hezbollah of setting up positions on the other side of the boundary fence. On Friday, an explosive device was detonated against Israeli soldiers patrolling the nearby border with Lebanon, causing no injuries, the army said.

Hezbollah accused Israel of carrying out an air strike on one of its bases on the Lebanon-Syria border last month and vowed to respond. Israel said it would hold the Beirut government responsible if Hezbollah attacked it from Lebanese territory.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alistair Lyon

Israel fires into Lebanon after bomb targets its soldiers


Israel fired tank rounds and artillery into southern Lebanon on Friday, its military said, in retaliation for a bomb that targeted Israeli soldiers patrolling the border.

No injuries were reported on either side.

The Israel-Lebanon border has been mostly quiet since Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah fought an inconclusive war in 2006, even as civil war has raged in neighboring Syria over the past three years.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said the Israeli fire targeted “Hezbollah terror infrastructure in southern Lebanon” and that a hit was confirmed. A Lebanese security source said six mortars had struck the area.

Hezbollah has been helping President Bashar Assad in Syria fight rebels trying to topple his government.

Earlier this month Israel said its troops shot two Hezbollah gunmen who tried to plant a bomb further east near the fence between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syrian-held territory.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Mark Trevelyan

Bomb on Lebanese border targets Israeli soldiers, IDF says


An explosive device was detonated against Israeli soldiers patrolling the border with Lebanon on Friday, causing no injuries, Israel's military said.

Israel shot six mortars into southern Lebanon, causing no damage or injuries, a Lebanese security source said, and an Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking whether the army had returned fire.

The Israel-Lebanon border has been mostly quiet since Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah fought an inconclusive war in 2006, even as civil war has raged in neighboring Syria.

Hezbollah has been helping President Bashar Assad in Syria fight rebels trying to topple his government.

Earlier this month Israel said its troops shot two Hezbollah gunmen who tried to plant a bomb farther east near the fence between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syrian-held territory.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

Report: Israeli planes bomb Hezbollah site


An Israeli airstrike hit a site in Lebanon known for its arms smuggling and recruitment for Hezbollah, according to the Lebanese media.

The Daily Star on Monday quoted a Lebanese security source as saying that the Israeli Air Force strike targeted a “qualitative” weapons shipment in the area of Janta on the Israel-Syrian border. Other Lebanese media also reported an attack.

The Israeli army had no immediate comment.

Israel has said it will not allow Hezbollah to receive high-quality weapons from its allies in the Syrian government.

U.S. officials: Hezbollah upgrades missile threat


Hezbollah operatives are smuggling components of advanced guided missiles from Syria to Lebanon, U.S. officials said.

Operatives from the Shi’ite terrorist group have been moving the components in parts to avoid detection and airstrikes by Israel, unnamed officials told The Wall Street Journal.

As many as 12 guided-missile systems may now be in Hezbollah’s possession inside Syria, according to U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence, the newspaper said.

In addition to aircraft, Hezbollah will be able to target ships and bases with the new systems, which include supersonic Yakhont rockets, the Journal reported Friday.

Such guided weapons would be a major step up from the “dumb” rockets and missiles Hezbollah now has stockpiled, and could sharply increase the group’s ability to deter Israel in any potential new battle, the officials said.

U.S. and Israeli officials also said several strikes last year attributed to Israel stopped shipments of surface-to-air SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons and ground-to-ground Fateh-110 rockets to Hezbollah locations in Lebanon. Some originated from Iran, others from Syria itself.

On Tuesday, Israel conducted its second successful experiment on the Arrow-3 interceptor missile, the Israel Ministry of Defense said in a statement Friday. Arrow-3 is designed to intercept large, longer range missiles as part of Israel’s multilayer interception defense array.

The intercepting missile hit its target over the Mediterranean during a test conducted by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

“The successful test is a major milestone in the development of the Arrow-3 Weapon System and provides confidence in future Israeli capabilities to defeat the developing ballistic missile threat,” the ministry said in a statement.

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

Hezbollah accuses Israel of slaying its weapons chief


Hezbollah claimed that Israel assassinated its technology and weapons chief near Beirut.

According to the Lebanese terror group, Hussein al-Laqis was shot at a parking lot outside his home south of the Lebanese capital on Tuesday night and died the next morning in a hospital. Israel denied involvement in the shooting.

“The Israeli enemy is naturally directly to blame,” the Hezbollah statement read, according to Haaretz. “This enemy must shoulder complete responsibility and repercussions for this ugly crime and its repeated targeting of leaders and cadres of the resistance.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor denied the Hezbollah claim.

“Israel has nothing to do with this incident,” Palmor said, according to reports. “These automatic accusations are an innate reflex with Hezbollah. They don’t need evidence, they don’t need facts; they just blame anything on Israel.”

Laqis, according to Haaretz, was a member of the group’s military elite and was in touch with Syrian and Iranian government intelligence. His death is a setback for Hezbollah, which has involved itself heavily in Syria’s civil war, sparking violence in Lebanon.

Al-Qaida-affiliated terror group says it’s resuming holy war against Jews


A terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on northern Israel said it has resumed a jihad, or holy war, against the Jews.

The Lebanon-based Azzam Abdullah Brigades said the rocket attack last week was carried out “as part of the resumption of the jihad against the Jews.”

“We’ve frozen the activity for the sake of the blessed Syrian revolution,” read the statement posted Monday on the Twitter account of a radical Salafist cleric.

Azzam Abdullah Brigades, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for firing four long-range missiles into northern Israel, including two that fell in residential areas, causing damage to houses and cars in Nahariya and Acre.

The “green light given by Israel and the Western countries to Hezbollah in the fight against our people in Syria, so that Israel could safeguard its security, will not provide it with security,” the statement said. “Rather, it will bring it closer to the fire of the jihadi fighters and make it much more exposed to them.”

The attack gives the “Jewish conquerors an indication of the quality of rockets in our possession,” it said. “Haifa should be decorated with the most magnificent shrouds to greet our rockets.”

At least one rocket in the attack was intercepted by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed in the area, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Israel says it bombed Lebanon in retaliation for rocket attack


Israel's air force bombed a militant target in Lebanon on Friday in retaliation for a cross-border rocket salvo on Thursday, a spokesman said.

An Israeli military source said the “terror site” bombed was near Na'ameh, between Beirut and Sidon, but did not immediately provide further details.

Four rockets fired on Thursday caused damage but no casualties in northern Israel. They were claimed by an al Qaeda-linked Sunni Muslim group rather than Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite militia that holds sway in south Lebanon.

“Israel will not tolerate terrorist aggression originating from Lebanese territory,” military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said in a statement announcing Friday's air strike.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war. Israel briefly invaded Lebanon during an inconclusive 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. The Israelis now are reluctant to open a new Lebanese front, however, given spiraling regional instability.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Bill Trott

Peres: Israel not involved in Beirut car bombing


Israeli President Shimon Peres denied claims by his Lebanese counterpart that Israel was behind a recent deadly bombing in Beirut.

At a press conference Friday in Jerusalem, Peres responded to allegations made Thursday by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman, who blamed Israel for a car bombing Thursday that killed some 20 people near a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.

“I was surprised by the Lebanese leadership, which once again is blaming Israel for the explosion,” Peres said in an appearance with U.N. Secretary General Ban ki-Moon, who is visiting Israel. “Blaming Israel is baseless. It is Hezbollah that is stockpiling bombs and killing people in Syria without permission from the Lebanese authorities.”

On Thursday, Suleiman called the attack “a criminal act that bears the fingerprints of terrorism and Israel, and is aimed to destabilize Lebanon and deal a blow to the resilience of the Lebanese,” according to a report in Lebanon’s Daily Star.

A Sunni Islamist group calling itself the Brigades of Aisha claimed responsibility for the explosion, saying it targeted Hezbollah. The group promised more attacks, Reuters reported.

But senior Hezbollah figures said that the blast “has Zionist fingerprints all over it.” Lebanese Interior Minister Marwan Charbel suggested that the attack may have been Israeli retaliation for explosions that wounded four Israeli soldiers who allegedly infiltrated southern Lebanon last week.

Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, told Israel’s Army Radio that the bombing, in which more than 212 were injured, was an internal Lebanese matter of state and denied Israel’s involvement as it has “enough problems of [its] own.”

“We have become accustomed to this kind of accusations, they need to be ignored,” he said, adding: ”There is almost no situation in the Middle East that Israel’s opponents do not attribute to Israel, and this is also true in this case.”

Hezbollah says it struck Israeli troops in Lebanon


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility on Wednesday for explosions which wounded four Israeli soldiers who infiltrated into southern Lebanon last week.

Nasrallah told Beirut-based Al-Mayadeen television that Hezbollah fighters planted bombs in an area they knew in advance Israeli soldiers would pass through, and detonated one of them when a first group of special forces reached the area.

A second bomb was triggered when Israeli reinforcements arrived on the scene, Nasrallah said, giving the group's first account of an incident about which Israeli military officials have given few details.

The Lebanese army said last week the Israeli soldiers had crossed 400 meters into Lebanese territory when the blasts occurred. An Israeli spokesman said only that four soldiers were wounded during “an activity near the border.”

“This was a controlled and deliberate operation,” Nasrallah said of the explosions. “It was not accidental, and was not (caused by) a landmine left behind by the Israeli occupation.”

Nasrallah did not say how the Hezbollah fighters knew in advance of the Israeli incursion, but said the group “will not accept these territorial violations” into Lebanon.

The border between Israel and Lebanon has been largely quiet since Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006.

Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Alison Williams