x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Rockets from Lebanon test ceasefire on Israeli border

It was a long night for UN peacekeepers whose task it is to maintain calm along the tense Israel-Lebanon border.

A police officer collects the debris of a rocket that was fired into northern Israel from Lebanon.
A police officer collects the debris of a rocket that was fired into northern Israel from Lebanon.

BEIRUT // It was a long night for UN peacekeepers whose task it is to maintain calm along the tense Israel-Lebanon border. With both Israel and the militant Shiite group Hizbollah using increasingly heated rhetoric and widespread fears that a right-wing Israeli cabinet could pursue a sequel to the 2006 summer war, a series of incidents overnight Friday threw UN representatives and Lebanese and Israeli defence officials into a near panic.

After several unguided rockets were fired at Israel early in the morning, lightly wounding three Israeli civilians according to medics, Israeli artillery pummelled the suspected launch pad. "It was ridiculously tense," said one UN official. "By morning, we were afraid to answer the phone for what might happen next." Just after nightfall on Friday, according to UN and Lebanese officials, the Israeli Defence Forces informed UN peacekeepers in south Lebanon that a soldier was missing along the militarised border. Fearing a repeat of 2006, when Hizbollah operatives crossed the border and kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, both the UN and the Lebanese government quickly acted to reassure the IDF that the disappearance was not related to Lebanon.

Hizbollah, a group known for taking credit for its operations, immediately denied capturing the soldier. "I'm surprised they didn't call us," said one Hizbollah member. "I am sure we are eager to help with the search." As the IDF deployed troops on a search and rescue operation along the coastline where the soldier was last seen, Israeli artillery units began firing illumination flares along the coast and border to help with the search, prompting hundreds of people to leave fearing an attack, a Lebanese official said.

By yesterday morning, after the IDF determined the soldier had drowned during physical exercise, another incident ratcheted up tensions further, as several unguided rockets similar to the type frequently used by Hizbollah were launched from Al Monsouri, a village just south of the coastal city of Tyre. At least one struck Israeli territory, slightly wounding three people in their home from shattered windows as the rocket fell nearby.

In response, IDF artillery units used counter-battery fire to pummel the suspected launch site as a warning to halt any further attacks. Israeli officials said the Lebanese government would be held responsible for any attacks that originate from its soil. A Lebanese army spokesman said Israel had responded to the rockets by firing at least seven artillery shells. The exchange of fire terrified Lebanese residents already spooked by the illumination flares, sending panicked residents of El Qlayleh, located about 10km from the border, fleeing the area where loud explosions could be heard, local media reports and witnesses said.

Sensing that the multiple incidents could be pushing the Israelis to respond further, Hizbollah immediately denied responsibility through its new spokesman, Ibrahim Moussawi. "Hizbollah has nothing to do with this attack," Mr Moussawi said. Lebanese officials immediately denounced Israel for firing back, claiming that such responses violate the UN resolutions that give the peacekeepers an expanded mandate to keep both the IDF and Hizbollah from engaging.

"The Israeli shelling is an unacceptable and unjustified violation of Lebanese sovereignty," the prime minister, Fouad Siniora, said. "The rockets launched from Lebanon threaten the country's security and stability and constitute a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701." In the past, UN officials have described a simple system used by both sides and the UN to allow each side to retaliate proportionally against incidents without sparking a broader conflict that neither appears to want.

"Significant causalities change the equation, but if everyone follows the formula, then things usually don't get out of hand," said a former UN official. Since the 2006 war, which killed more than 100 Israelis and 1,000 Lebanese civilians, adversaries on both sides have been mostly satisfied to verbally antagonise each other. There has so far been no significant violation of the 2006 truce, although Hizbollah and Lebanon contend that Israeli air force overflights of Lebanon should be counted as violations.

This is the third anonymous rocket attack on northern Israel this year. Two similar attacks occurred at the height of the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip. mprothero@thenational.ae