Two soldiers were killed Wednesday when an Israeli army patrol came under anti-tank fire from Hezbollah operatives in the northern Mount Dov region near the border with Lebanon.
The IDF confirmed that at least seven soldiers were wounded in the attack and ruled out the possibility that a soldier had been kidnapped.
The two soldiers were identified later as company commander Captain Yochai Kalengel, 25, from Har Gilo and Sgt. Dor Nini, 20, from Shtulim.
Their vehicle was hit by the first of five Kornet guided anti-tank missiles fired at an IDF convoy near Ghajar, on a civilian road near the border. Other soldiers in the convoy evacuated their vehicles when the first missile struck, preventing further loss of life. The missiles were said to have been fired from a distance of some 4.5 kilometers.
“Earlier today, an anti-tank missile hit an IDF vehicle in the Har-Dov area, killing two soldiers and wounding an additional seven, two of them moderately,” said the IDF in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “The soldiers’ families have been notified.”
Photos that emerged after the attack showed two badly damaged vehicles in flames. The IDF vehicles were unarmored.
Five more soldiers were lightly hurt. Dr. Hani Bahus, head of the trauma unit at Rambam Hospital in Haifa, said two wounded soldiers who arrived with shrapnel injuries to their abdomens and chests are “fully conscious and do not require surgery,” Ynet reported.
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 north, 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, last week that killed at least seven, including an Iranian general and a senior commander in the organization. The statement said it was a “first announcement,” alluding to the possibility of further attacks.
The attack was praised by Iran and by Hamas.
Most of the injured soldiers were evacuated to Ziv Hospital in nearby Safed in light to moderate condition, while others 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, speaking from Sderot, 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.
The attack, launched from an area controlled by Hezbollah, comes after repeated threats by the group, which said it would retaliate against Israel for an airstrike earlier in January that killed its top commander in the Syrian Golan Heights, along with an Iranian general and 10 others.
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.
Times of Israel staff and AP contributed to this report.