BEIRUT (AFP) – Tensions were running high after a series of tit-for-tat attacks between Israeli forces and guerrillas in Lebanon, the fiercest cross-border violence this year.
A fighter with the Lebanese Hezbollah militia and a member of a Syrian-backed radical Palestinian group were killed in Israeli air strikes while attacks from Lebanon left two Israeli soldiers wounded.
UN peacekeepers later said they had brokered a ceasefire but each side blamed the other for the flare-up on the border, which remains highly volatile six years after Israel ended its 22-year occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000.
The rocket attacks from Lebanon hit deeper into Israeli territory than ever before, near the town of Safed, and residents of the northern Israeli towns of Kiryat Shmona and Nahariya were ordered into shelters for several hours.
“Israel has no interest in an escalation on the northern border, but will know how to hurt those who try to hurt its citizens even more,” Defence Minister Amir Peretz told Israeli radio Monday.
“The response was determined and unequivocal and the message was understood,” he said. “Israel will do everything in order to lead to calm and quiet on the northern border.”
An Israeli military expert with the Haaretz newspaper, Zeev Schiff, claimed that Hezbollah now had long-range rockets provided by its Iranian backers that could hit the centre of Israel.
He said the rockets could carry up to 600 kilograms (1,300 pounds) of explosives and reach as far as Beersheva in the Negev desert.
The radical Palestinian group Islamic Jihad said a statement it had fired the rockets to avenge the death of one of its leaders in a car bomb attack in Lebanon on Friday that it blamed on Israel. But a Jihad spokesman later said the statement was “false”.
One soldier was lightly wounded in the initial rocket attack near Safed, which lies between the border and the Sea of Galilee, while another was in a moderate condition after being wounded by a Hezbollah sniper.
Hezbollah said one of its fighters lost his life in an Israeli air raid while a militant from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) was also killed and five wounded.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora denounced what he called the “enemy’s aggression” and called on the international community to force Israel to withdraw from the disputed Shebaa Farms area, blaming the worsening situation on the frontier on “continuing Israeli occupation”.
A Hezbollah statement also charged that the Israeli bombardments “constitute a flagrant violation of Lebanese sovereignty.”
Despite Israel’s withdrawal, violence often flares between Hezbollah fighters and Israeli soldiers in the Shebaa Farms region which was seized from Syria by Israel in the 1967 Arab Israeli war but is now claimed by Lebanon with Damascus’s consent.
Several clashes have also pitted Palestinian militant groups against the Lebanese army since the April 2005 withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after a presence of almost 30 years.
Between six to eight rockets were fired from Lebanon during the day, the Israeli military said, and Hezbollah also claimed to have bombed the Israeli army’s border headquarters although no damage was reported.
Israel warplanes swung into action, launching eight raids against bases of the pro-Syrian PLFP-GC and Hezbollah holdouts in southern and eastern Lebanon near the border with Syria.
One raid targeted a base just 10 kilometres (six miles) south of Beirut, triggering panic among motorists on a busy nearby highway, police said.
PFLP-GC leader Ahmad Jibril, in an interview published in the Lebanese daily Al-Balad on Sunday, said his group was coordinating its anti-Israeli military action with Hezbollah.
Before Sunday, the last rocket attack was in December, when seven Katyushas slammed into towns in northern Israel, without causing damage.