SAFED – Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued a clear threat to the Hezbollah terror group while overlooking the northern border on Sunday, saying that the Jewish state was prepared to take harsh action against “anyone who tests us,” as the Lebanese militia was suspected of planning to strike Israel in retaliation for the death of one of its fighters earlier this week.
Gantz also indicated that Israel would continue to act in Syria and Lebanon, despite the tensions, in order to ensure its security.
“We will continue to ensure our security interests, which include removing Iranian entrenchment in Syria, blocking the transfer of advanced [weapons], and preventing the development of precision [guided missiles] anywhere in the region — in Syria or in Lebanon,” he said.
Asked about reports that Israel conveyed messages to the Lebanese terror group that it had not meant to kill its fighter — Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad — in an airstrike on Damascus International Airport last Monday, Gantz appeared to drop Israel’s policy of ambiguity about its activities in Syria.
“We acted against the entrenchment of Iran in Syria. If someone involved in Iran’s activities in Syria — which we will continue to act against — this is liable to happen. We take that into account,” he said.
The defense minister indicated that he did not believe the current situation would lead to a larger conflict or an all-out war, but said the he “recommends to the other side not to drag us into that.”
Gantz again warned the governments of Syria and Lebanon that they would be held responsible for any attacks against Israel coming from their territory.
“The situation in Lebanon and Syria is not good — economically, in terms of the coronavirus and in terms of their infrastructure. I remind both Lebanon and Syria that they are responsible for what happens in their territory and what comes out of it,” Gantz told reporters on a hill inside the Israel Defense Forces’ Northern Command headquarters in Safed.
“We don’t want any unnecessary escalations [of violence], but anyone who tests us will be met by a very high capability to take action, and I hope we won’t need to use it,” he added.
On Sunday night Hezbollah’s deputy chief brushed off Israel’s warnings, while keeping quiet on whether the terror group would retaliate against the Jewish state.
“If Israel decides to go to war with us, then we will confront them, and the 2006 [Second Lebanon] War will be the model for our response,” Naim Qasim told pro-Hezbollah al-Mayadeen TV. “We’re used to Israeli threats; they do not offer us a new political vision. This is mere chest-beating.”
He said the organization was keeping its cards close to its chest on a possible response.
Gantz visited the northern region on Sunday, meeting with the IDF top brass, including IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, Northern Command chief Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, and Military Intelligence head Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, as well as lower-ranking commanders in the field, amid concerns that Hezbollah would carry out some type of attack against Israeli military targets after the terror group accused Israel of killing its fighter in an airstrike on Damascus International Airport on Monday night.
Following Hezbollah’s allegation on Tuesday, the IDF went into high alert on the northern border, deploying infantry reinforcements on the ground, as well as additional Iron Dome missile defense batteries along the border.
On Friday, the military began clearing out unnecessary personnel from the frontier and barring military vehicles from traveling on roads that are vulnerable to anti-tank guided missile attack from Lebanon. No such restrictions were placed on civilians, who were encouraged to go about their daily lives as normal despite the heightened tensions.
The expectation in the military is that Hezbollah will likely retaliate with a missile strike — as it did under similar circumstances last year — with a sniper attack on Israeli troops or with an improvised explosive device planted along the border.
“We believe there can be [security] events on the border. We are prepared for all possibilities,” Gantz said.
The skies above northern Israel were filled on Sunday with the sound of fighter jets, drones and helicopters, apparently collecting intelligence and preparing to retaliate to any such attack.
Shortly after Gantz’s visit, the IDF said that one of its small copter drones that was operating along the border crashed inside Lebanon, but that there was no risk that sensitive information could be taken from it.
Last week, the IDF sent an additional infantry battalion and a small number of other troops to the region, as well as artillery weapons.
“I was very impressed by the depth of the understanding and the depth of the preparedness of the IDF troops operating throughout the Northern Command,” Gantz said.
Earlier on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also warned Syria and Lebanon that they would bear responsibility for any attack against Israel emanating from their territories.
Speaking at the opening of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said Israel had a “consistent policy to not allow Iran to entrench militarily on our northern border.
“Lebanon and Syria bear responsibility for any attack from their territory against Israel,” he said. “We will not allow anyone to upend our security or threaten our citizens; we won’t tolerate an attack on our forces… The IDF is prepared to respond to any threat.”
Meanwhile cabinet ministers — seemingly save for Gantz — were instructed to make no comments on the situation in the north, in an apparent effort to avoid exacerbating tensions.
Tensions between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which maintains a presence in the Syrian part of the Golan Heights, have been high since the July 20 airstrike in southern Syria attributed to Israel in which one of the organization’s fighters was killed.
The tensions continued to simmer over the weekend as the Israeli military stepped up its defenses along the country’s northern borders out of concern over a potential attack against military targets there.
According to a report on Saturday in Al Mayadeen, a Lebanese news network closely associated with Hezbollah, Israel has sent a message to Hezbollah warning against any retaliatory action in response to the strike.
The message was delivered via UN intermediaries and Hezbollah refused to adhere to the “warnings and threats from Israel,” according to the Al Mayadeen report.
In the past, Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate for losses of its soldiers in Syria with attacks on Israel. This was the case in September, when the terror group fired three anti-tank guided missiles at Israeli military targets along the Lebanese border, narrowly missing an IDF armored ambulance with five soldiers inside, after the IDF killed two of its fighters in Syria the month before.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.