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Army chief visits north; military to remain on high alert

UN peacekeepers investigating flareup on Israel-Lebanon border

Lebanese army says sites bombed by IDF after troops come under fire belong to ‘Green Without Borders,’ an environmental group long seen as a Hezbollah front

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Israeli soldiers stand near artillery howitzers deployed near the Lebanese border in northern Israel on August 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers stand near artillery howitzers deployed near the Lebanese border in northern Israel on August 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon UNIFIL on Wednesday announced it was launching an investigation into an apparent exchange of fire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah terror group along the Israeli-Lebanese border the night before.

“I have launched an urgent investigation and I call on both parties to fully cooperate with UNIFIL to help determine the facts,” UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col said in a statement.

According to the IDF’s initial investigation of the incident, at 10:40 p.m. on Tuesday Hezbollah snipers fired two shots from a small arms weapon at combat intelligence troops operating near the Israeli community of Manara near the Lebanese border. The shots, fired from 200-300 meters (660-990 feet) away, missed their target, hitting a nearby object.

In response, Israeli artillery fired a number of flares and smoke shells into the air as troops searched the area for potential border breaches. A short while later, Israeli aircraft bombed a number of Hezbollah observation posts near the frontier, the military said.

What appeared to be the first Israeli airstrikes against Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon since the 2006 Second Lebanon War were meant to indicate to the terror group that the IDF would react more forcefully to attacks than it has until now, while also not responding so aggressively that Hezbollah would be forced to retaliate and risk all-out war.

IDF howitzers fire flares and smoke shells near the Lebanese border on August 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“The situation along the Blue Line has since returned to calm and UNIFIL is maintaining continuous presence in the area in coordination with the parties,” according to UNIFIL.

In response to the sniper attack, Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan submitted a request to the UN Security Council to strengthen UNIFIL’s mandate, allowing it to more effectively enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War and demanded all armed groups besides the Lebanese military remain north of the country’s Litani River. Under its current mandate, UNIFIL is not able to enter private property without permission, which Erdan said makes the peacekeeping force “neutered” as it is not able to ensure Hezbollah is not building up arms and forces in private homes and land.

In his request, Erdan included a map of southern Lebanon marked with locations where Hezbollah has fired anti-tank guided missiles and built cross-border attack tunnels, as well as known “Green Without Border” facilities and areas where UNIFIL has been barred from inspecting.

“Green Without Borders” is an environmental group that has long been suspected of being a front for Hezbollah’s military wing.

A map of alleged Hezbollah activities in southern Lebanon presented to the United Nations Security Council by the Israeli delegation to the UN on August 26, 2020, following an attack by the terror group along the border. (Israel at the UN)

Tuesday night’s exchange came amid lingering tensions along the border after Hezbollah last month swore revenge for the death of one of its fighters in an airstrike outside Damascus on July 20 that was widely attributed to Israel.

The IDF on Wednesday evening said it was remaining on high alert following the border clash with Hezbollah.

As of Wednesday evening, Hezbollah had not commented on its reported sniper attack on IDF troops or on the Israeli retaliation. Israeli defense analysts saw that silence as indicating that the terror group did not consider the score settled and planned to carry out further attacks along the border.

Damage caused in southern Lebanon by an Israeli strike in response to a Hezbollah sniper attack along the border on August 26, 2020. (Lebanese Armed Forces)

The Lebanese Armed Forces identified some of the targets of the Israeli airstrikes as belonging to “Green Without Borders.”

“Helicopters belonging to the Israeli enemy targeted centers of the ‘Green Without Borders’ environmental group inside Lebanese territories, by launching 3 rockets which targeted the outlying area of Ramya, and 8 missiles which landed outside the town of Aita al-Sha’ab,” the Lebanese military said Wednesday.

The LAF also said the IDF targeted a Green Without Borders site near Aitaroun, which led to a fire in the area.

The bombing appeared to be the first Israeli airstrike on Hezbollah targets inside Lebanon since 2006, amid escalating tensions along the restive frontier.

Israel has long accused Green Without Borders of serving as a front for Hezbollah’s military wing, constructing observation posts near the border that are used by the group’s operatives and planting trees in strategic locations to block Israeli surveillance cameras. Though the United Nations and UNIFIL have not confirmed a direct link between the two organization, they have acknowledged some connection between the two, including the fact that an attack against Israel by the terror group last September was apparently launched from a GWB site in southern Lebanon.

The peacekeeping force said the IDF informed it that “there had been small arms fire from Lebanon directed against an IDF patrol in the general area of Manara.”

The remains of an Israeli flare that landed in southern Lebanon following a Hezbollah sniper attack along the border on August 26, 2020. (Lebanese Armed Forces)

In addition, UNIFIL said its radars “also detected mortars and artillery shells, mostly smoke, as well as intense UAV activities” near the border.

The Lebanese military said Israel launched 117 flare shells and about 100 shells, some of them explosive and the rest for smoke screens along the Lebanese border. Some of the shells, as well as igniting fires in forests in the area, caused material damage to a house and a goat shed, according to the LAF.

The IDF acknowledged firing dozens of artillery shells into southern Lebanon as flares and for smoke screens.

“[UNIFIL commander] Del Col remains in contact with the parties, urging restraint and requesting that all sides avoid any provocative action that could further escalate tensions and jeopardize the cessation of hostilities,” UNIFIL said.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi visited the Northern Command on Wednesday to discuss the exchange of fire with Hezbollah, the military said.

During the visit, Kohavi met with the head of the IDF Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram and the commander of the Galilee Division, Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, as well as other officers from the area. They discussed what occurred during the clash, as well as “other developments in the northern region and preparedness for possible scenarios,” the IDF said.

“The chief of staff was impressed by the operational and intelligence capabilities of the troops in the field and commended the troops level of readiness,” the military said.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, left, speaks with head of the Northern Command Maj. Gen. Amir Baram, center-right, and commander of the Galilee Division Brig. Gen. Shlomi Binder, right, in the Northern Command’s headquarters in Safed on August 26, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

Tuesday night’s exchange was not the first incident along the Lebanese border after the death of the Hezbollah operative on July 20.

On July 27, the IDF said it thwarted an apparent Hezbollah sniper attack, driving the terrorist operatives back across the border before they could open fire at Israeli troops. In the weeks that followed, the military also said it prevented at least one other infiltration and brought down a Hezbollah drone flown into Israeli territory from Lebanon.

After initially bracing for a retaliation by Hezbollah by deploying additional troops along the border, the IDF began scaling down its reinforcements following the massive explosion at the Beirut Port earlier this month. The military believed that the terror group — a major power broker in Lebanese politics — would focus its energy on Lebanon’s domestic issues rather than carry seek to exact revenge on Israel, though Hezbollah maintained that its retaliation was still to come.

The Tuesday night clash also came exactly one year after the IDF killed two Hezbollah members in an airstrike on an Iran-controlled facility in Syria that the military said was used to launch attacks on Israel with explosives-laden drones.

In response to the deaths of the two Hezbollah operatives, the terror group conducted an anti-tank guided missile attack on Israeli military targets a week later. One missile narrowly missed an IDF armored ambulance with five soldiers inside.

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