JERUSALEM — Israel and Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah militia appeared Thursday to be seeking calm a day after exchanging lethal fire across a fractious border that raised concern of another war erupting between the arch-enemies.
The border between the two countries appeared quiet Thursday morning, with no fire traded between Israel and the Hezbollah fighters, although both sides were on high alert.
Wednesday’s clashes, which began with a Hezbollah attack that killed two Israeli soldiers near the border, marked one of the most serious flare-ups of violence since a 34-day war in 2006 and raised tensions in a volatile tri-border zone close to positions held by Syrian insurgent rebels, including Islamist factions. A Spanish U.N. peacekeeper was also killed, prompting Spain’s U.N. ambassador to blame Israeli fire.
On Thursday, Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said that he was informed by the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon that Hezbollah wanted to refrain from an escalation.
“Indeed, a message was received,” he said during an interview with Army Radio, adding that the U.N. maintains indirect “lines of communication” between Israel and the Shiite militia group.
Yaalon’s claims could not be verified, and Hezbollah officials were not immediately available for comment.
Lebanon’s National News Agency reported an Israeli “reconnaissance plane” flying over Lebanese airspace Thursday morning.
After the deadly violence, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that “whoever is behind today’s attack will pay the full price.” In addition to Hezbollah, Netanyahu said Israel would hold the governments of Lebanon and Syria — which Hezbollah is backing in its civil war— responsible for any attack originating from their territories. The Israeli leader, in the midst of a competitive election campaign, also blamed Iran, another ally of Hezbollah, for trying to open a new front against Israel.
As anti-armor missiles and tank artillery flashed across the countries’ border, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, traveling in China, said Israel should retaliate “in a very harsh and disproportionate manner.”
Hezbollah, which asserted responsibility for the attack on the Israeli convoy, also threatened more actions. The deadly exchange on the border came 10 days after an Israeli airstrike in the Syrian-controlled portion of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and a senior military commander from Iran. Hezbollah leaders had vowed to retaliate.
The Israeli military said seven troops were wounded in Wednesday’s hostilities, and the United Nations said a Spanish member of its peacekeeping force was killed in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the Israel-Lebanon border. Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, said the circumstances of the “tragic incident” were being investigated
Spain’s U.N. ambassador, Roman Oyarzun Marchesi, blamed Israel Wednesday for the death of the peacekeeper, identified as Cpl. Francisco Javier Soria Toledo, 36, The Associated Press reported.
“It was because of this escalation of violence, and it came from the Israeli side,” he said.
The clashes began when an anti-tank missile struck Israeli military and civilian vehicles traveling in a convoy along the border. The attack was followed by mortar rounds launched from Lebanon that landed near Israeli troops in the foothills of Mount Hermon, according to Israeli military officials.
That barrage was answered by dozens of artillery shells fired into Lebanon. Israeli military officials said their forces launched “aerial and ground strikes at Hezbollah operational positions.”
In a separate operation, Israeli jets hit Syrian army artillery positions near the Israel-occupied Golan Heights in response to two rockets fired from Syria the previous day. No casualties were reported.
The area where Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet has been mostly quiet for years, but increasingly the nearly four-year-old conflict in Syria has spilled over. Hezbollah has backed the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is also supported by Iran.
The recent tensions began escalating Jan. 18, when a missile from an Israeli warplane struck a convoy traveling near the Syria-Israel demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights, killing the six Hezbollah members and the Iranian general. Israeli officials claimed Hezbollah had been planning a large-scale attack against Israel.
Among the dead was Jihad Mughniyah, the son of Imad Mughniyah, a former top Hezbollah militant who was assassinated in a 2008 car bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Israel is suspected of playing a role in the elder Mughniyah’s killing.
The Israeli military had since been bracing for a retaliatory strike, moving additional soldiers, tanks and air-defense systems into the border zone
After Wednesday’s exchange, Israeli civilians were evacuated from some areas along the border.
The exchange of fire took place in a contested area known as Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah says the area belongs to Lebanon, and the United Nations defines the area as part of Syria. The Israelis claim it is theirs.
The fact that Hezbollah attacked Israeli troops, rather than Israeli population centers near the border, may make Israel less likely to respond harshly. But the death of two Israeli soldiers might also bring further Israeli action at a time when Hezbollah, distracted by its fight in Syria, could be weakened.
Some analysts estimate that as many as 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, while others put that number in the hundreds. Hezbollah does not disclose such information, but its losses in Syria are widely believed to have been significant.
“Hezbollah is stretched thin because of Syria. Even if it were not in Syria, that doesn’t mean that Hezbollah would want a major escalation with Israel,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut.
“The Israeli shelling in the south isn’t terribly intense,” he said. “So I don’t think this will lead to a major conflagration.”
A Lebanese political analyst who has close ties with senior Hezbollah officials described the latest attack as “a trap set by Hezbollah.”
“It’s important to note that Hezbollah’s first statement [on Wednesday’s attack] was called Communique No. 1, which means that it is signaling that it is ready to fight more,” said the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the tense situation.
Netanyahu warned Hezbollah not to escalate. “I suggest that all those who are challenging us on our northern border, look at what happened in Gaza,” he said, referring
to last summer’s 50-day war between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and swaths of Gaza in ruins.
He later sharpened his warnings, singling out Iran and saying those “behind the attack today will pay the full price.”
Israel and Hezbollah fought a four-week war in 2006 that failed to dislodge key Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and was interpreted in the Arab world as a victory for the militia group.
Naylor reported from Beirut. Suzan Haidamous in Beirut contributed to this report.