UNIFIL ups patrols, calls for restraint following IDF-Hezbollah spat

UNIFIL ups patrols, calls for restraint following IDF-Hezbollah spat

Brother of Samir Kuntar indicates point scored against Israel over assassination of arch-terrorist after cross-border exchange Monday

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

A Spanish UNIFIL peacekeeper drives an armored vehicle in the Lebanese town of Adaisseh, near the border with Israel, on January 19, 2015. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)
A Spanish UNIFIL peacekeeper drives an armored vehicle in the Lebanese town of Adaisseh, near the border with Israel, on January 19, 2015. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

The head of the United Nations peacekeeping force on the Israel-Lebanon border called for “restraint against provocation” to prevent the situation on Israel’s northern border from deteriorating on Monday evening, following a Hezbollah attack against Israeli army vehicles and IDF artillery fire into southern Lebanon in the afternoon.

However, he also said the UN Interim Force in Lebanon had ramped up patrols along the border following the cross-border clash.

“UNIFIL has further reinforced its presence on the ground and intensified patrols across the area of operations in coordination with the Lebanese Armed Forces,” the force said in a statement Monday night.

An improvised explosive device detonated near an Israeli army bulldozer and another vehicle near Shebaa Farms, known in Israel as Har Dov.

In response, Israel fired “targeted” artillery shells into Lebanon in response to the attack, the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement.

Some 20 shells were reportedly fired from Shebaa Farms. At least nine of them landed near the Lebanese village of al-Wazzani, located just north of the Israel-Lebanon border, the Lebanese news site Naharnet reported.

There were no casualties on either side, officials said, though Hezbollah claimed to have injured a number of Israeli soldiers.

No casualties were reported to UNIFIL from either side, spokesperson Andrea Tenenti said.

UNIFIL has launched its own investigation into the incident, he added.

UNIFIL Head of Mission and Force Commander Maj. Gen. Luciano Portolano immediately contacted both sides to stress the need for calm.

“The need of the time is to maintain security vigil and to exercise utmost restraint against any provocation. General calm has been restored in the area and the parties have reassured me of their continued commitment to maintain the cessation of hostilities in accordance with Resolution 1701,” Portolano said in a statement.

Hezbollah took responsibility for the Monday attack, which it said was carried out by a cell named after Samir Kuntar, a terrorist who in 1979 carried out a terror attack that resulted in the deaths of two Israeli children and their father, and was killed in an airstrike in Damascus on December 20, 2015.

“Today at 3:10 p.m. the Samir Kuntar Martyr Unit scored a point in the ‘case open’ column,” Kuntar’s brother, Bassam Kuntar, tweeted soon after the attack. The “case open” remark was in response to the Israeli impression following Kuntar’s death — that 36 years after he committed his infamous terror attack the “case was closed.”

The group claimed it destroyed an Israel Defense Forces Hummer and injured those inside. However, the army said no one was injured and the vehicles targeted were heavy machinery.

The heavy engineering vehicles, including at least one D9 bulldozer, were in the area of the northern border in order to clear a pathway of obstructions and explosive devices like the one used in the attack, the army said.

Israel fired dozens of “targeted” artillery shells into Lebanon in response to the attack, the IDF said in a statement.

The IDF has been reportedly firing on positions in southern Lebanon for a number of days, in an attempt to keep terrorists away from the border fence.

The army has instructed residents of Israel’s north to stay in their homes, a spokesperson said.

The IDF has also closed some roads in the area surrounding the border with Lebanon, the Hebrew media reported.

Israel has anticipated some form of response by Hezbollah or another terrorist group for the death of Kuntar. He served 29 years in an Israeli prison, before being released as part of an exchange in 2008.

Over the past few days, officials said the military wants to prevent Hezbollah operatives from laying roadside bombs in the area, where Israeli army jeeps perform patrols.

On January 28, 2015, two soldiers were killed when an anti-tank missile hit a patrol near Shebaa Farms along the border with Lebanon. The attack came 10 days after an apparent Israeli airstrike killed Hezbollah and Iranian operatives in Syria.

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