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.

Israel, Hezbollah signal their flare-up is over


Israel and Hezbollah signaled on Thursday their rare flare-up in fighting across the Israel-Lebanon border was over, after the Lebanese guerrillas killed two Israeli troops in retaliation for a deadly air strike in Syria last week.

Israel said it had received a message from UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, that Hezbollah was not interested in further escalation.

In Beirut, a Lebanese source briefed on the situation told Reuters that Israel informed Hezbollah via UNIFIL “that it will make do with what happened yesterday and it does not want the battle to expand”.

Asked on Israel's Army Radio whether Hezbollah had sought to de-escalate, Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said: “There are lines of coordination between us and Lebanon via UNIFIL and such a message was indeed received from Lebanon.”

A salvo of Hezbollah guided missiles killed an Israeli infantry major and a conscript soldier as they rode in unmarked civilian vehicles along the Lebanese border on Wednesday.

Israel then launched an artillery and air barrage, and a Spanish peacekeeper was killed. Spain's ambassador to the U.N. blamed the Israeli fire for his death. Israel said on Thursday that its deputy foreign minister met the ambassador to voice regret at the death and promise an inquiry.

Wednesday's clash was one of the most serious on that border since 2006, when Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war. Quiet returned on Thursday, though Lebanese media reported overflights by Israeli air force drones.

Both sides appear to share an interest in avoiding further escalation.

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought Israel to a standstill in 2006, is busy backing Damascus in Syria's civil war. It may also be mindful of the ruin Israel has threatened to wreak on Lebanon should they again enter a full-on conflict.

Israel is gearing up for a March 17 general election and gauging the costs of its offensive on the Gaza Strip last year against Palestinian guerrillas, whose arsenal is dwarfed by Hezbollah's powerful long-range rockets.

The Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a part, said in a statement it was determined to keep stability in southern Lebanon and to deny the “Israeli enemy the chance to drag Lebanon to a wide confrontation”.

REVENGE

In a separate interview, Yaalon described Israeli forces on the Lebanese border as being vigilant, but not on war footing.

“I can't say whether the events are behind us,” he told Israel Radio. “Until the area completely calms down, the Israel Defense Forces will remain prepared and ready.”

Yaalon termed Wednesday's Hezbollah attack “revenge” for the Israeli air strike on Jan. 18 in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members, including a senior operative, along with an Iranian general.

Israel has not formally acknowledged carrying out the air strike, but Yaalon said it had set back Hezbollah and Iranian efforts to “open a new front” against Israel from the Syrian Golan Heights.

UNIFIL officials did not confirm or deny passing messages between Israel and Hezbollah.

UNIFIL says it has no contacts with Hezbollah but its head of mission was in close contact with Israel and the Lebanese government throughout the day. The channel of communication “is still open now and it is always open in order to ask the parties to exercise maximum restraint”, spokesman Andrea Tenenti said.

During Wednesday's flare-up, Israeli troops launched a search for suspected tunnels that Hezbollah might use to send in guerrillas for a cross-border attack – a tactic employed by Palestinian Hamas fighters during the 2014 Gaza war.

“No tunnels have been found so far,” Yaalon told Army Radio.

U.N. observers failing mandate to track Hezbollah arms, Israeli official says


U.N. peacekeepers in southern Lebanon have failed to report on Hezbollah guerrilla armaments as required, a senior Israeli official said on Thursday, arguing that Israel could not rely on foreign intervention for its security.

The remarks underscored the conservative strategies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as instability rocks Israel's neighbors and world powers urge it to roll back its West Bank occupation to make way for Palestinian state.

“Under pressure, a multi-national force is like an umbrella that gets folded up on a rainy day,” Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu's national security adviser, said in a Tel Aviv University speech.

Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hezbollah, Amidror said, has been building its arsenal despite the 35-year presence of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) in its heartland.

“Has Hezbollah avoided bringing any kind of rocket, missile or other arms into southern Lebanon because UNIFIL is there?” he said. Israel believes Hezbollah has amassed 60,000 rockets, including 5,000 with heavy warheads capable of hitting Tel Aviv.

“Under their (UNIFIL) mandate, they cannot stop Hezbollah and confiscate its arms, but they can write a report. There has been no UNIFIL report about any weapon of any Hezbollah person since UNIFIL has existed,” Amidror said.

As part of the U.N. ceasefire that ended Israel's inconclusive 2006 war with Hezbollah, UNIFIL's mandate was enhanced to include “assisting” the Lebanese army with keeping guerrilla “personnel, assets and weapons” out of south Lebanon.

UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said that since 2006, the U.N. peacekeepers had “not witnessed the entry of any illegal weapons into the UNIFIL area of operations in south Lebanon”.

While the border is largely quiet, Israel fears Hezbollah could pound it with rockets in retaliation should it carry out long-threatened strikes on Iran's nuclear sites.

Israel also worries that Hezbollah could obtain advanced weapons, including chemical munitions, from Syria. But the militia has said its current capabilities are sufficient.

In their own breach of the 2006 truce, the Israelis have regularly sent warplanes on surveillance flights over Lebanon.

Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000 after 22 years of occupation, and from the Gaza Strip in 2005 after 38 years of occupation. Armed threats from Hezbollah in the former, and Palestinian Hamas Islamists in the latter, have been cited by Netanyahu as justifying his reluctance to give up the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the Hamas rival who governs in the West Bank, has accused Israel of sabotaging diplomacy by peppering the territory with Jewish settlements and holding up funds for his U.S.-backed administration.

The Israelis question Abbas's ability to govern long-term.

“If there aren't the appropriate security arrangements, it would be better for Israel to go without an accord (with the Palestinians) than to have an accord that will endanger its security and could bring about a situation in which in the next war, Israel will lose,” Amidror said.

Writing by Dan Williams and Dominic Evans; Editing by Jason Webb

Hezbollah weapons depot reportedly blows up


An explosion in southern Lebanon on the border with Israel is reported to be a Hezbollah weapons depot.

The blast seriously damaged the building that the weapons were housed in and killed nearby farm animals, but there were no reports of people being injured, according to Reuters.

Members of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, were investigating the cause of the explosion.

Hezbollah reportedly sealed off the area, preventing the entrance of the UNIFIL observers, and claimed that the explosion was caused by an Israeli shell that was fired on southern Lebanon during the 2006 war and did not explode at the time.