x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Israel shells Lebanon border after rocket fire

Israel’s military fires a barrage of shells into southern Lebanon in retaliation after five Katyusha-style rockets were launched into Israel.

MARJEYOUN, Lebanon // Israel’s military fired a barrage of shells into southern Lebanon in retaliation after five Katyusha-style rockets were launched into Israel on Sunday.

The attacks struck uninhabited areas of both Israel and Lebanon without causing any casualties or damage, officials on both sides said.

The Israeli government accused the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah of being behind the rocket fire and threatened an even tougher response to any further attacks.

“About 20 shells from Israeli territory have struck the border region of Arqub after the launch of rockets against Israel this morning,” a Lebanese security official said.

The shelling came in response to two Katyusha-style rockets fired from Lebanon that struck an open field west of the town of Kyriat Shmona, Israeli military radio reported.

“Artillery responded to rocket attacks from Lebanon against Israel that left no victims, targeting the area where these projectiles were fired from,” an Israeli official said.

Tension has spiked on the border between the two countries since an Israeli soldier driving near the frontier was shot and killed on December 16.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, accused Hizbollah of being involved in firing the rockets.

“Hizbollah deploys thousands of rockets and missiles among the civilian population. So it is committing a double war crime under the patronage of the Lebanese government and its army, who do nothing,” said Mr Netanyahu.

His defence minister warned Beirut that tougher reprisals could follow.

“We will not tolerate fire from Lebanon on our territory ... We consider the Lebanese government and army responsible for this morning’s fire,” said Moshe Yaalon.

“The Israeli army responded by firing a large number of shells at the area from where the rockets were fired. If necessary, it will be even tougher,” he said.

The United Nations monitoring force on the border, Unifil, confirmed the exchange of fire, adding it had contacted both sides, urging them to “exercise maximum restraint”.

“This is a very serious incident ... and is clearly directed at undermining stability in the area,” said Unifil chief Paolo Serra.

“Unifil’s first imperative is to ensure that there is no further escalation of the situation.”

Israel’s border with Lebanon has been largely quiet since the 2006 war with Hizbollah.

The last time a soldier was killed there was in August 2010, when two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist also died.

In August, four Israeli soldiers were wounded by an explosion some 400 metres inside Lebanese territory, in a blast claimed by Hizbollah.

Last week, Hizbollah said one of its top leaders was killed near Beirut and blamed Israel for his murder, a charge denied by Israel, which warned against any retaliation.

UN peacekeepers were deployed along the border following the 34-day war in 2006 which killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon and 160 Israelis.

Israel and Lebanon have fought several wars before. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated intention of driving Palestinian guerrillas out of the south. The Israeli military battled halfway through the country into Beirut and occupied south Lebanon until 2000.

Given the years of enmity between the two countries, even the smallest incident raises the risk of sparking a wider conflagration.

Lebanon is unusually jittery after a car bombing in Beirut on Friday that killed a top politician, Mohammed Chatah. On Sunday, Lebanese soldiers fanned out throughout the country, manning checkpoints and closing off sensitive roads.

Nonetheless, the government is notoriously unable to control its own security. Hizbollah has its own large, well-trained militia that dominates the southern border. There are also small bands of Palestinian militants who claim responsibility for some isolated rocket attacks.

There was no claim of responsibility for Sunday’s attack.

* Agence France Presse with additional freporting by Associated Press