Hamas may join Hezbollah in fighting against Israel in an effort to cozy up to Iran, a senior intelligence official from an Arab country said Wednesday, as an Israeli army patrol on the northern border came under fire from the Lebanese terror group in a major escalation of cross-border hostilities.
The official, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said Hamas support could include firing rockets out of Gaza at southern Israeli cities, opening a second front as Israel deals with fire from Lebanon and Syria.
The official said Hamas had made clear in recent days its support for Hezbollah’s right to respond to an airstrike earlier this month that killed its top commander in the Syrian Golan Heights, along with an Iranian general and at least five others.
Hamas may not suffice with a statement but may actually allow rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, the source said.
In a sign that the Lebanese terror group could be gearing up for a major confrontation with Israel, the official said dozens of Hezbollah advisers had returned urgently from Iraq to Lebanon.
Hezbollah also paid all its members’ salaries on January 27, even though the Shiite organization usually pays salaries on the first day of the month, the official added.
Israeli officials had geared up for a possible Hezbollah response after the January 18 airstrike near the border city of Quneitra.
On Wednesday afternoon, an army vehicle came under fire, leaving at least seven soldiers injured. The IDF confirmed that there were two soldiers killed and seven wounded in Wednesday’s attack. The army ruled out the possibility that a soldier had been kidnapped.
The incident took place in an area of the border that doesn’t have a fence. At the same time, and for over an hour after the attack, IDF positions in the area, as well as on nearby Mount Hermon, were hit with mortar shells.
Israel responded to the attack with artillery strikes in southern Lebanon. Two Lebanese officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israel targeted the border villages of Majidiyeh, Abbasiyeh and Kfar Chouba with at least 50 shells. A Spanish United Nations peacekeeper was killed, Lebanese reports said. Families living on the border of the villages fled further within, fearing they’d be hit, said the officials, who are based in south Lebanon.
Hezbollah said in a statement that a squad from the “fallen martyrs of the Quneitra brigade” had attacked the Israeli convoy in retaliation for an alleged Israeli airstrike near Quneitra, just over the border in Syria. The statement said it was a “first announcement,” alluding to the possibility of further attacks.
Six soldiers were evacuated to Ziv Hospital in nearby Safed in light to moderate condition, and other wounded were airlifted to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Channel 2 reported.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz was holding high-level consultations to mull further responses to the attack. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cut short a tour of the Gaza Strip border region and headed to the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv to join the meeting.
In an initial reaction to the incident, Netanyahu invoked Israel’s massive campaign against Hamas and other groups in the Gaza Strip over last summer: “Anyone who tries to challenge us along the northern border should come and see what happened here, not far from Sderot, in the Gaza Strip.”
Israeli hikers and vacationers in the area of the incident, including in the Hermon ski resort, were ordered to leave the region.
At least two rockets launched from Syrian territory landed in the Golan Heights Tuesday in an attack that Israeli defense officials attributed to Hezbollah. In response, Israel shelled Syrian army positions, and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon issued a stern warning to Hezbollah and its patron Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“The Assad regime is responsible for the fire into Israel, and we will exact a heavy price from any government or organization that violates our borders,” Ya’alon said Wednesday. “We have no intention of ignoring or abiding terrorist attacks on our soldiers and citizens.”
The Mount Dov area has seen multiple cross-border incidents involving Hezbollah in recent years.
In October, Hezbollah claimed a bomb attack against Israeli troops along the border that wounded two soldiers. Hours later, a second bomb went off along the border in the area, but did not result in any casualties. The clash came two days after a Lebanese soldier was lightly wounded by Israeli forces in the same area.
Claims to the area, known by the Lebanese as the Shebaa Farms, have been made by Israel, Lebanon, and Syria in the past, although the land, covering roughly 20 square kilometers, now lies within Israel’s northern territory.
Maj. Gen. (res) Israel Ziv, former head of the army’s Operations Directorate, explained in a conference call with journalists why Hezbollah chose the Mount Dov region for its retaliatory attack. “What happens in Shebaa stays in Shebaa,” he said. Ziv explained that due to the disputed nature of the area, Israel has in the past refrained from launching large-scale retaliations in Lebanon in response to Hezbollah actions there.
Israel on Wednesday ruled out the possibility that a soldier or soldiers had been kidnapped in the wake of the attack — a tactic employed by Hezbollah several times in the past.
In 2006, the group killed two soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and took their bodies, sparking a bloody, month-long war. The fighting resulted in the deaths of 43 Israeli civilians and 119 IDF soldiers, and over 1,700 dead on the Lebanese side, including 600 to 800 Hezbollah combatants, according to IDF figures.
The bodies of Regev and Goldwasser were returned to Israel in 2008 in exchange for Lebanese terrorist Samir Kuntar, four Hezbollah members and the remains of some 200 Lebanese and Palestinian prisoners.
Adiv Sterman, Jonathan Beck, Avi Issacharoff and AP contributed to this report.