IDF stays on high alert as Lebanese PM accuses Israel of ‘dangerous escalation’

As tense calm returns after Israeli dust-up with Hezbollah, Diab also calls for caution; Lebanese media reports intensive Israeli drone flights; IDF maintains roadblocks in north

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Israeli army forces seen stationed near the border between Israel and Lebanon in the Golan Heights on July 27, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli army forces seen stationed near the border between Israel and Lebanon in the Golan Heights on July 27, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The Israeli military on Tuesday remained on high alert along the northern border amid fears that the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group would try to carry out an attack, following an alleged attempted assault the day before in a contested area on the frontier.

Also Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab accused Israel of carrying out a “dangerous military escalation” the previous day and thereby violating United Nations Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

“I fear that the situation will deteriorate in light of the severe tension on our borders with occupied Palestine,” Diab wrote in a statement, calling for caution.

The Lebanese prime minister, who is supported by Hezbollah, also accused Israel of seeking to give the international peacekeepers in Lebanon, known by the acronym UNIFIL, additional powers in the country and change the “rules of engagement.” UNIFIL’s mandate to operate in Lebanon is due to be reviewed and renewed next month by the UN Security Council.

Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab speaks during a news conference after his government was announced, at the Presidential Palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, January 21, 2020. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

According to the Israel Defense Forces, on Monday afternoon a group of Hezbollah operatives infiltrated a short distance into the Israeli-controlled Mount Dov region, also known as Shebaa Farms, before IDF troops opened fire at them — apparently not hitting them, but forcing them back across the border.

The incident appeared to be an attempt by the Iran-backed Hezbollah to exact revenge for the killing of one of its members in Syria last week in an airstrike it attributed to Israel.

Following the alleged failed assault, Hezbollah officially denied that an attack had taken place, but did not explicitly dispute that its members had crossed into the Israeli-controlled enclave.

Israeli defense officials scoffed at the terror group’s denial, saying the infiltration attempt had been filmed by military security cameras and that the operatives who took part in it were armed. The Israel Defense Forces said it was considering releasing the footage from the incident.

The terror group said a reprisal for its fallen operative in Syria was still to come.

However, Lebanese news outlets affiliated with or directly controlled by the terror group appeared to indicate that Hezbollah considered the fact that it forced the IDF into a state of high alert to be sufficient retaliation for the time being.

A picture taken from the Israeli side of the Blue Line that separates Israel and Lebanon shows smoke billowing above the Shebaa Farms sector after clashes in the border area, on July 27, 2020. (Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Nevertheless, the Israeli military remained on high alert out of concern that Hezbollah would try to carry out an attack along the border, as it threatened to do Monday.

Lebanese media reported intensive Israeli drone flights over southern Lebanon throughout Tuesday morning. The military also maintained its own roadblocks in the area, preventing IDF vehicles from traveling on certain highways along the border that were considered vulnerable to attack from Lebanon.

“Tense and complicated days are before us,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters on Monday afternoon.

Following the incident, Israel conveyed messages to Lebanon, through third parties, that it did not want Monday’s border altercation to descend into a war with the country’s Hezbollah terror group.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz (left) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press briefing, July 27, 2020 (Gobi Gideon/GPO)

In a joint press conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz issued clear warnings to Hezbollah and to the countries of Lebanon and Syria that Israel would respond harshly to any attacks.

“Hezbollah needs to know that it is playing with fire,” Netanyahu said, also making clear that Israel holds Lebanon accountable for the actions of the terror group based on its soil.

Speaking after the premier, Gantz said, “Israel is more determined than ever to prevent any harm to its sovereignty, its soldiers, and certainly to its citizens.”

Syrian Air defenses respond to alleged Israeli missiles targeting south of the capital Damascus, on July 20, 2020 (AFP)

He added that Israeli security forces would continue operating “wherever necessary — however near or far,” in an apparent reference to the military’s fight against Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.

In the past, Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate for losses of its fighters 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.

On Friday, the IDF began clearing out unnecessary personnel from the frontier and barring military vehicles from traveling on roads that were exposed to anti-tank guided missile fire from Lebanon. No such restrictions were placed on civilians at the time, who were encouraged to go about their lives as normal despite the heightened tensions.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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