Israel has reportedly conveyed to international officials that it doesn’t want Monday’s border altercation to descend into a war with Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, after the latter’s failed alleged attempt to infiltrate Israel and attack IDF soldiers on the northern border.
The message said Israel wasn’t interested in escalating the situation, the Ynet website reported early Tuesday, without citing a source or specifying who the message was conveyed to.
However, the message was also said to warn that if needed, Israel was ready to deal a “painful blow,” stressing that Syria and Lebanon were responsible for what happens while Iran is the driving force behind it.
The Israeli military said no IDF soldiers were injured during the border incident, which saw Israeli forces open fire at a number of fighters from the terror group that entered Israeli territory, according to the army. Hezbollah denied the clash took place, calling it “absolutely false.”
Israeli forces remained on high alert along the northern border, and additional forces were deployed late Monday as the terror group threatened to attack the Jewish state at an unspecified future date.
Security personnel in border-area communities will not go on patrol during nighttime for fear of being targeted.
Ministers have been instructed not to give interviews about the situation in the north.
Meanwhile, residents of northern Israel continued their daily lives undeterred, but some lamented that the incident would scare away Israeli travelers after the crucial tourism industry already suffered a critical blow due to travel restrictions forced by the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t feel any fear, I’m only afraid of people’s panic,” farmer Ilan Rosenfeld from Metula told the Walla news site. “We have gotten used to being in these situations over the years and we have gone through much more difficult periods.”
However, restaurants and pubs slowly emptied Monday as the events unfolded, leaving businesses with even fewer customers than they normally have these days under partial closure conditions.
“From the moment the incident began everything stopped, people went home and that’s it,” said taxi driver Ilan Levy. “We had the coronavirus, now we have [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah.
“I don’t know how this will affect things. The situation wasn’t stellar before. From February all arrivals through Ben Gurion Airport stopped. So now in the summer we had some tourists, Israelis, and as of now they have disappeared.”
In a joint press statement Monday from the military’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated that Israel would continue to act to prevent Iran from establishing a military foothold in Lebanon and Syria.
By directing Monday’s attack, Nasrallah was trying to draw Lebanon and Iran into a clash with Israel, Netanyahu said.
“We view the attempt to infiltrate our territory with great severity. Hezbollah and Lebanon bear full responsibility for this incident and for any attack that comes out of Lebanese territory against Israel,” the premier added, making clear that Israel holds Lebanon accountable for the actions of the terror group based on its soil.
“Hezbollah needs to know that it is playing with fire,” Netanyahu said.
“Nasrallah has already made a big mistake in testing Israel’s determination to defend itself, and the Lebanese state has paid a heavy price for this. I suggest he does not repeat this mistake,” he added, in an apparent reference to the blow dealt by Israel during the 2006 Second Lebanon War.
Speaking after Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said, “Israel is more determined than ever to prevent any harm to its sovereignty, its soldiers, and certainly to its citizens.”
“Lebanon and Syria are sovereign states and will bear the painful responsibility for any terrorist act that takes place on their territory,” he added. “Anyone who dares to test the power of the IDF will endanger themselves and the country from which they operates.”
He asserted that Israeli security forces would continue operating “wherever necessary — however near or far.”
No Israeli soldiers were hurt in the attempted attack in the Mount Dov area. 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.
Hezbollah later denied carrying out any attack or exchanging fire with Israeli forces, adding that it would respond at a future date to the killing of one of its fighters in an alleged Israeli airstrike in Syria last week.
In a statement read aloud on its al-Manar television network, Hezbollah said: “All that the enemy claims in the media about thwarting an infiltration operation from Lebanese territory into occupied Palestine, as well as talk of the fall of martyrs and wounded Hezbollah members in bombing operations that took place in the vicinity of the occupation sites in the Shebaa Farms — is absolutely false.”
Appearing to indicate the matter is not over, the Lebanese terror group said its response to the death of its fighter — Ali Kamel Mohsen Jawad — in an alleged Israeli raid in Syria “is definitely coming. The Zionists have only to wait for their crimes to be punished.”
Israeli defense officials scoffed at the terror group’s denial, saying the infiltration attempt was 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.
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.
Despite the Hezbollah official statement, the Reuters news agency cited a member of the terror group who said that the attempted Hezbollah assault was in retaliation for the death of its fighter in Syria.
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 farmlands. After an hour, the IDF removed these restrictions, permitting civilians in northern Israel to move about the area freely.
— Judah Ari Gross and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.