Sobbing friends and relatives gathered Thursday afternoon for the funerals of two soldiers killed in a Hezbollah missile strike a day earlier, as Israel’s defense minister indicated the cross-border flare-up in which they were killed had subsided.
The Israeli-Lebanese border was calm on Thursday, a day after Major Yochai Kalangel and Staff Sergeant Dor Chaim Nini were killed by an anti-tank missile that hit their convoy on Israel’s northern border, escalating tensions between Israel and terror group Hezbollah.
In an unusual declaration, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Hezbollah had passed on a message through the UN mission in southern Lebanon saying it did not want a further escalation.
“We have received a message via UNIFIL that from their point of view the incident is over,” he told public radio.
Analysts say neither side seems keen for a repeat of the devastating Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006 and any response was likely to be limited.
Israeli forces responded to the anti-tank attack — which came in retaliation for an alleged Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members — with artillery, tank and air fire on several villages in southern Lebanon.
There were no reports of local Lebanese casualties, but a 36-year-old Spanish peacekeeper with UNIFIL was killed in the exchange of fire.
Mourners gather in Jerusalem
In Israel, farmers were tending their apple orchards close to the border fence, an AFP photographer said. Schools had reopened, as had the Mount Hermon ski resort in the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights.
In the Lebanese border village of Majidiya, residents were collecting spent artillery shells from Wednesday’s strikes, an AFP photographer said.
At the local UN peacekeeping base a blackened concrete tower could be seen with part of its wall blown out. A Spanish flag was flying at half-mast.
Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem on Thursday morning for the burial of Kalangel, 25.
Kalangel, a company commander from the West Bank settlement of Har Gilo, leaves behind a wife and a young daughter.
Sobbing relatives greeted the mourners, many wearing the purple beret of his Givati Brigade, as a large Israeli flag flew overhead.
Hundreds of friends, family and fellow soldiers also gathered in the town of Shtulim in south-central Israel for the funeral of Nini, 20, who was buried at the cemetery there at 3:00 p.m. Thursday.
Speaking at the funeral, Nini’s mother Sima asked for his forgiveness if she hurt him, Ynet reported. “My beloved boy. I’ve lost you. You went to the army and came back in a coffin.”
Nini’s girlfriend Sahar said that she discovered that he was about to propose to her. “This is not so, tell me it’s not so. We were together for six years. Please, open the door of my house and come inside. You always said that it didn’t matter who was standing in our way, you’d get rid of him. So come and get rid of this nightmare.”
“I only want one more message from you: I love you,” she continued. “Who will tell me in the morning that he loves me? No one will take your place. Please come and tell me this is just a nightmare.”
Before the funeral, Givati Brigade commander Col. Ofer Winter visited Nini’s parents.
Questions have been raised in Israel about why the soldiers were traveling in unarmored vehicles in the volatile area.
Israel said it considered Wednesday’s attack the “most severe” it had faced since 2006, when its war with Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon and some 160 on the Israeli side.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with top security brass late Wednesday, warning afterwards: “Those behind today’s attack will pay the full price.”
Chances of war ‘very slim’
Still, analysts said that Israel, fresh from its summer war with Hamas in Gaza and heading for a general election in March, was not eager for a full-scale conflict with Hezbollah.
“Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, compared with the 10,000 of Hamas,” said analyst Boaz Ganor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
“The human cost of such a war would be enormous and no Israeli leader will be pro-active in this direction,” he said.
Hezbollah is meanwhile deeply involved in Syria’s civil war, fighting with President Bashar Assad’s forces against Sunni rebels.
“The chances (of an escalation) are very slim, almost none, because none of the sides has an interest in moving to a big operation or a small war,” Yaakov Amidror, a former major general and security adviser of Israel, told AFP.
“Hezbollah is very busy in Syria; the last thing that it needs is a second front,” he said.
Tension in the area had been building before Wednesday’s attack, especially after an unconfirmed Israeli airstrike on the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had earlier threatened to retaliate against Israel for its repeated strikes on targets in Syria and boasted the Shiite terror movement was stronger than ever.