JERUSALEM , 29 Jan : (PTI) — Hezbollah antitank missiles killed two Israeli soldiers as they drove in a disputed area along the Lebanese border on Wednesday, a sharp retaliation for Israel’s deadly drone strike last week that killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general.
The attack was the most severe eruption of hostilities in the area since the fierce enemies’ devastating monthlong war in 2006 and threatened to incite a significant escalation. But after a second Hezbollah strike of mortar shells on Mount Hermon and Israeli artillery, tank and air fire on targets in southern Lebanon, a tense quiet set in before dusk.While both sides had domestic reasons for needing to show a strong hand, neither is eager for another all-out battle, analysts said, adding that the exchange on Wednesday appeared oddly orchestrated to signal a reluctance to escalate the conflict. They cautioned, however, that fighting along the increasingly volatile frontier, against a backdrop of Middle East chaos, could easily spiral out of control.“It’s a very delicate game, because both sides want to respond hard enough that they’re not perceived as weak, but not too hard to start a war,” said Benedetta Berti of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It’s a very, very thin line. There’s plenty of room for miscalculations. If this is where it ends, we’re moving on to the next chapter, with the awareness that every single time this starts again, we get closer to a proper war.”
With its popularity plunging among the Sunni majority in the Arab world, Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement backed by Iran, has been under intense pressure to return its focus to its main mission of fighting Israel after two years devoted to helping the Syrian government combat a mostly Sunni insurgency. In Lebanon, several experts said Hezbollah’s strikes on Wednesday seemed intended to maximize publicity to please loyalists — and its Iranian patrons — and exact revenge without provoking a crushing response.
“To me, the whole thing was calibrated to say, ‘You did your thing, we did our thing,’ ” said one Western diplomat involved in talks to tamp down the possibilities of conflagration. Speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the talks publicly, he said diplomats had heard directly from a Hezbollah official that “they intended a limited operation and they do not want war or escalation.”
A Spanish member of the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon was also killed during the clashes Wednesday.
After a closed-door meeting of the United Nations Security Council, the Spanish ambassador, Roman Oyarzun Marchesi, said that the peacekeeper had been killed by the Israeli artillery fire that followed rocket attacks from Lebanese territory. “It was because of the escalation of violence, and it came from the Israeli side,” he said.The Israeli soldiers were killed at Shebaa Farms — known in Israel as Mont Dov — a strip claimed by Israel, Lebanon and sometimes Syria near the intersection of all three and adjacent to the Golan Heights. Three parts of the Israeli-controlled Golan remained closed to civilians Wednesday evening. In Lebanon, Hezbollah backers celebrated with sweets and fireworks but also filled their gas tanks, to be prepared in case war breaks out.
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As he convened a special security assessment at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said the governments of Syria and Lebanon shared responsibility for the consequences of aggression from their territory, and promised that “those who are behind the attack today will pay the full price.”
“For a while, Iran has been trying, through the Hezbollah, to form an additional terror front against us from the Golan Heights,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement. “We are acting with resolve and responsibility against this effort.”
Hezbollah issued a bare-bones statement taking responsibility for the attack, leaving it to its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, to respond more fully in a speech scheduled for Friday. But loyalists circulated a cartoon depicting Lebanon as Israel’s coffin, and Al Manar, its satellite television channel, played martial music and videos between news reports all day.
For one Hezbollah loyalist in southern Lebanon whose family lost a house in the 2006 war — a woman who asked to be identified only by her first and middle name, Aya Hussein, to avoid repercussions when abroad — the events Wednesday ushered in a new era in which “we are the scary ones, not the scared.”Lt. Col. Peter Lerner of the Israeli military said the soldiers who were killed were in unarmored, unmarked, white vehicles — an Isuzu D-Max truck and a Citroen Berlingo van — on a road about a mile from the border. The first vehicle was hit by five antitank missiles fired from less than three miles away around 11:30 a.m., he said, killing Capt. Yochai Kalangel, 25, and Sgt. Dor Chaim Nimi, 20. Seven other soldiers were injured.
Israel captured the small strip of former farmland at the intersection of its borders with Syria and Lebanon, along with the adjacent Golan, in the 1967 war, and later annexed both, a move not recognized by the United Nations. Lebanon views Shebaa Farms as occupied Lebanese territory, while Syria, because of a century-old dispute over the never-demarcated border, has sometimes claimed Shebaa as its own.
That the strike Wednesday was in an already contested area, that it targeted soldiers and not civilians, and that it did not include an infiltration or kidnapping attempt were all seen as signs of relative restraint on the part of Hezbollah.
“This is Hezbollah saying, ‘We will respond, we’re not pushovers, we can defend ourselves, but this is not a cross-border raid and bring the bodies back — you didn’t see rockets, you saw small mortars,’ ” noted Matthew Levitt, director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The response had to be somewhat measured because the last thing in the world they want is to open up a full second front. They’re not capable of fighting two full-fledged wars on two separate fronts at the same time.”Israel had been bracing for a response since the Jan. 18 airstrike on a convoy in the Syrian part of the Golan that killed the Iranian general and the six Hezbollah fighters, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of its slain military commander. Kamel Wazne, a Lebanese political analyst, said that attack constituted “a major breach” of Israel’s 1974 cease-fire with Syria and of a tacit agreement not to engage Hezbollah inside Syria. He said that Hezbollah felt its nemesis was changing the “rules of the game.”Israel crossed a red line, and if Hezbollah did not react, Israel will not stop,” said Mr. Wazne, who has extensive contacts in the group. The attack Wednesday, he added, “shows that Hezbollah’s confrontation is with Israel, so it can get back its respected position in the Arab world” by returning focus to where, in the eyes of much of the region, “it was supposed to be the whole time.”
For Israel, the exchange comes at a precarious time: seven weeks before an election, and amid American-led negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Israeli military officials have long been preparing for what they see as an inevitable next round with Hezbollah, and imagine it as an intense, costly battle for both sides.
Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hard-line foreign minister, who has been faltering in the polls, called for “a very harsh and disproportionate” response.
Isaac Herzog of the Labor Party, Mr. Netanyahu’s prime challenger, who was touring the area at the time of the attack, said that “if anyone in Hezbollah believes that during elections we can be threatened and divided, he is gravely mistaken.”
Security is Mr. Netanyahu’s strong suit, so the threat of a conflagration could benefit him at the ballot box, but he has also proved risk-averse in military operations. The 2006 war, with about 1,000 Lebanese and 160 Israeli fatalities, was widely viewed as a disaster.“Military adventures prior to elections, of course, are a double-edged sword,” said Jonathan Spyer, an international affairs specialist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. “The Israeli public doesn’t object to military operations if they’re quick and clean, but the last thing you want to do is go into elections in the middle of a bloody war like the summer of 2006.”
But like other experts on both sides, Mr. Spyer warned that strategic planning and balancing interests could easily give way in such a heated environment.
“Deterrence is not an exact science; it’s not even a science at all — it’s an art,” he said. “We’re in the midst of an escalation, and we don’t know where it’s going to end.”