The Israel Defense Forces said it thwarted a Hezbollah attack in the Mount Dov area on Monday afternoon, opening fire at a number of fighters from the terror group that entered Israeli territory.
No Israeli soldiers were injured, and the IDF denied Lebanese media reports that a Kornet anti-tank guided missile was fired at an Israeli tank on Mount Dov, also known as Shebaa Farms, an area that Israel, Lebanon and Syria each claim as its own.
IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said at least some members of the Hezbollah cell fled back to Lebanon, but added: “We don’t know their conditions for sure at this point.”
The Hezbollah-affiliated Al-Mayadeen news outlet reports that no Hezbollah fighters were killed during the failed attack.
Though a tense calm returned to both sides of the border following the incident and all security restrictions on Israeli civilians were quickly lifted, Zilberman said the military considered the event to be ongoing, with the possibility of additional attacks. The military 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.
The attempted Hezbollah assault was in retaliation for the death of one of its fighters in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria last week, a member of the group told the Reuters news outlet after the attack.
Zilberman said the military did not yet know if Hezbollah would consider this failed attack to be a sufficient form of revenge, but that the IDF would remain on high alert for the time being.
“Tense and complicated days are before us,” he said.
Zilberman said it was not yet clear how many fighters were in the Hezbollah cell, but said it appeared to be three to five.
According to Zilberman, shortly after 3 p.m., the Hezbollah cell entered a few meters into Israeli territory, heading toward a military position on Mount Dov, before troops opened fire with machine guns, tanks and artillery cannons, driving them back into Lebanese territory.
Zilberman said the Hezbollah members were spotted by soldiers operating powerful security cameras shortly before they crossed the border and were tracked the entire time they were inside Israeli territory. Israeli defense officials later said the men were armed.
The spokesman said the IDF did not immediately know precisely what type of attack the Hezbollah cell intended to carry out in Israel, but that it was confident that the operatives were planning some type of assault.
“A cell sneaking into Israel in the middle of the day, they probably weren’t going to have a barbecue,” Zilberman told reporters.
Explosions and sounds of gunfire were heard throughout the region and smoke filled the air above Mount Dov during the incident, apparently the result of smoke shells fired by Israeli artillery. Zilberman said these were fired “to keep away any potential threats.”
In one case, an Israeli artillery shell crashed through a home in southern Lebanon, causing damage but no injuries, according to local Lebanese media.
There were no official comments released by Hezbollah. After the incident, media outlets affiliated with or controlled by the group, which at first reported on a successful anti-tank missile attack by Hezbollah, then appeared to indicate the group was denying that any such attempted attack had taken place. The Al-Mayadeen news channel said the entire incident was fabricated, that Israel had attacked an “imaginary cell.” The Hezbollah-run al-Manar television station also questioned “if there even was an operation [that Israel thwarted].”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz were both informed about the incident and traveled to the military’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv to discuss the developments with the IDF top brass. Meanwhile, IDF Chief Aviv Kohavi oversaw the incident from the Northern Command’s headquarters in Safed.
“We are in a difficult security situation,” Netanyahu said, as he left a Likud party meeting as the incident began.
The Israeli military initially ordered residents of communities near Mount Dov and along the Israeli-Lebanese border to remain inside their home, closed all roads in the area, and ordered all farmers, hikers and tourists to immediately leave all open areas and farm lands. After an hour, the IDF removed these restrictions, permitting civilians in northern Israel to move about the area freely.
Following Hezbollah’s claim last Tuesday that Israel had killed its fighter the day before, 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.
The skies above northern Israel were filled on Sunday and Monday with the sound of fighter jets, drones and helicopters, apparently collecting intelligence and preparing to retaliate for any attack.
On Sunday, Gantz issued a clear threat to Hezbollah terror group while visiting the northern border, saying that the Jewish state was prepared to take harsh action against “anyone who tests us.”
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 — 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.”
“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,” Gantz said.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz warned the governments of Syria and Lebanon that they would be held responsible for any attacks against Israel coming from their territory.
“Lebanon and Syria bear responsibility for any attack from their territory against Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday. “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.”
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.”
On Friday, the IDF 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 at the time, who were then encouraged to go about their daily lives as normal despite the heightened tensions.
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.
Aaron Boxerman and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.