A day of bloodshed on Israel’s border with Lebanon and Syria leaves two Israeli soldiers and one UN peacekeeper dead and raises fears of a conflict between the IDF and Hezbollah.
In the biggest escalation since a 2006 war, the soldiers were killed when the Islamist militant group fired a missile at Israeli military vehicles on the frontier with Lebanon.
Israeli military sources said the Israeli vehicle was travelling in a convoy when it was struck at close range. The Israeli military confirmed that the soldiers had died.
The peacekeeper, serving with a UN monitoring force in southern Lebanon, died after the attack as Israel responded with airstrikes and artillery fire, a UN spokesman and Spanish officials said.
A further seven soldiers were reportedly wounded in the attack. Israel issued a flat denial that a soldier had been kidnapped.
Hezbollah said one of its brigades in the area carried out the attack. It follows an 18 January Israeli air strike in southern Syria that killed several Hezbollah members as well as an Iranian general.
Over the last 24 hours, there have been sporadic exchanges of gunfire between Israeli forces and fighters in Syria and Lebanon, including members of Hezbollah.
An hour after the anti-tank missile attack, mortars were fired on Israeli military positions on Har Dov mountain and Mount Hermon. In response, Israel fired a heavy barrage of at least 50 artillery shells into Lebanon.
Until recently, the area where the frontiers of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet had been relatively peaceful since Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in 2006.
Tensions in the region, where militant groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are active, have been dangerously high for months but have boiled over in the past 10 days.
Security comes before everything else. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli PM
A retired Israeli army officer, Major-General Israel Ziv, said he believed Wednesday’s attack was an attempt by Hezbollah to draw Israel more deeply into the war in Syria, where Hezbollah is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Assad.
“Israel needs to protect its interests but not take any unnecessary steps that may pull us into the conflict in Syria,” he said.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made security his top priority before a parliamentary election on March 17, said Israel was “prepared to act powerfully on all fronts”, adding: “Security comes before everything else.”
But analysts said Israel was likely to be cautious in its response – at least until after the election. “Netanyahu most likely realises that a prolonged military engagement in Lebanon could cost him the election,” said Ayham Kamel and Riccardo Fabiani of the Eurasia Group.
“Instead, Israel will pursue limited actions targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon, but the low scale tit-for-tat exchanges will not broaden into a wider war.”
Israel reportedly believes Hezbollah is too embroiled in the civil war in Syria to launch a full-scale war on its northern border, but the group has been preparing for future conflict by digging an extensive network of tunnels.