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Tensions high in Golan Heights after deadly clashes

Smoke from Israeli shelling covers the Lebanese town of Al-Majidiyah on the Lebanese border with Israel on Wednesday.
Smoke from Israeli shelling covers the Lebanese town of Al-Majidiyah on the Lebanese border with Israel on Wednesday. AFP

Lebanon’s Hezbollah militants exchanged fire with Israeli troops in a disputed area of the Golan Heights Wednesday. Two soldiers and a UN peacekeeper were killed in the clashes, the most serious escalation in the region since the 2006 conflict.

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The flare-up added to the regional chaos brought on by neighbouring Syria’s civil war. Hezbollah indicated the attack was in retaliation for a deadly Israeli strike on its fighters inside Syria earlier this month.

The violence sparked fears in both countries of yet another crippling war between the two foes. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel would respond “forcefully” and the military fired artillery shell barrages that struck border villages in southern Lebanon. Hezbollah responded with rocket fire on Israeli military positions.

The Israeli military said five anti-tank missiles hit the soldiers as they were traveling near Mount Dov and Shebaa Farms, along a disputed tract of land where the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet.

The soldiers were in two unarmoured white vehicles without military insignia when they were struck from a distance of about three miles (five kilometres) away, according to Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

Israeli media aired footage showing the charred, smouldering vehicles after the strike, which also wounded seven Israeli soldiers.

Israel blamed for death of UN peacekeeper

At the UN headquarters in New York, spokesman Stephane Dujarric confirmed the death of a Spanish UN peacekeeper, who he said was killed by an explosion at the UN base near Ghajar, Lebanon, during the crossfire.

Spain’s ambassador to the UN blamed Israel directly for the death of the peacekeeper, identified as 36-year-old Corporal Francisco Javier Soria Toledo.

Asked from which side the fire which caused the explosion originated, Spanish Ambassador Roman Oyarzun Marchesi told reporters: “I made it clear […] it came from the Israeli side”.

Oyarzun Marchesi told FRANCE 24 that Madrid has demanded a full investigation into the attack in order to ascertain how Israeli shelling could have hit a UN base.

Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), said that Israeli forces knew the location of the UN base.

Earlier in the day Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said that once his government had enough information about how the soldier had died, “its hand will not shake when it comes to demand full responsibilities” for the killing.

The Security Council, meeting in an emergency session, condemned the peacekeeper’s death in the strongest terms and offered its deepest sympathies. In a statement, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that he conveyed Israel’s condolences for the death in a conversation with his Spanish counterpart.

Threat from Netanyahu

The dead Israeli soldiers killed were identified as Captain Yochai Kalangel, 25, and Sergeant Dor Chaim Nini, 20.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki condemned the Hezbollah attack and expressed support for Israel’s “legitimate right to self-defence”.

Hezbollah said the operation was carried out by a group calling itself the “Righteous Martyrs of Quneitra,” suggesting it was to avenge an Israeli airstrike in the Syrian portion of the Golan Heights on January 18 that killed six Hezbollah fighters, including the son of the group’s slain military commander, Imad Mughniyeh, and an Iranian general. Israel has braced for a response to that strike, beefing up its air defences and increasing surveillance along its northern frontier.

“Whoever stands behind today’s attack will pay the price in full,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying. Netanyahu said that Iran, through Hezbollah, was working to establish a base in southern Syria from which to launch attacks against Israel. “We are working resolutely and responsibly against this attempt,” he said.

He said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Lebanese government shared the blame for attacks against Israel emanating from their territory.

Despite his strong words, the Israeli premier is unlikely to want to get mired in a messy and costly conflagration ahead of his re-election bid on March 17, with Israelis weary following a year that brought both the 50-day Gaza war and a spike in deadly attacks by Palestinians.

Syrian preoccupation

Rocket and artillery fire continued on both sides of the border for hours after the initial attack.

The Israeli military said mortars were fired at several Israeli positions in the border area and on Mount Hermon in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, causing no injuries. It said Israeli forces responded with fire towards Lebanese positions, and evacuated Israeli visitors from a ski resort in the area.

Lebanese officials said the Israeli shelling targeted the border villages of Majidiyeh, Abbasiyeh and Kfar Chouba near the Shebaa Farms area. By afternoon, residents along the border reported the shelling had died down but that there were still Israeli aircraft flying overhead.

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Families living on the outskirts of the targeted southern Lebanese villages fled the Israeli fire, fearing they’d be hit. Celebratory gunfire echoed in Shiite-dominated areas of Beirut, while in other areas, nervous parents hurried to pick up their children from school and hunker down at home.

Sounds of gunfire were heard near the Israeli village of Shear Yashuv, and there were plumes of smoke near Mount Dov. Israeli helicopters flew overhead and Israeli police and army set up checkpoints on roads near the border, closing them briefly.

The clashes recalled the beginning of the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, which was sparked by a Hezbollah attack on an Israeli military vehicle along the border, and the kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers.

The ensuing month-long conflict killed some 1,200 Lebanese, most of which were civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers, and ravaged the Shiite-dominated region of southern Lebanon as well as the country’s infrastructure.

However, Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles and rockets, is currently preoccupied with the war in neighbouring Syria, where it is aiding Assad’s forces, and Israeli officials believe the Shiite militant group is not interested in opening a new front with Israel.

Start of a major confrontation?

Still, some analysts warned that Hezbollah would not shy away from engaging Israel in what could become an expanded conflict drawing in Syria and even Iran.

“This is the beginning of what could be a major confrontation,” said Kamel Wazne, founder of the Center for American Strategic Studies in Beirut, in an interview with AP. “My estimate is this is the beginning of redefining the new confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.”

However, Ayham Kamel, an analyst with Eurasia, said the latest Hezbollah attacks were structured as a limited retaliatory response to the Israeli airstrike on its fighters and would likely remain contained.

In a note emailed to AP, he said the attacks were “a message from the resistance axis that the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon are effectively two open fronts for military operations against Israel”. Israel Ziv, a reserve Israeli general and a former head of the military’s Operations Directorate, told reporters the situation was “flammable” and that Israel should work to “contain” the situation.

“We could find ourselves in a war that does not belong to Israel,” he said.

“I do believe that Israel understands that it needs to contain it,” he said, adding that Israel should not take any “steps that would pull us into the chaotic situation in Syria”.

“We’re back to a very fragile status quo," FRANCE 24’s Gallagher Fenwick reported from Tel Aviv. "The best way to describe the atmosphere in the north [of Israel] is a very tense calm that could go in any direction at this point."

Tensions have been building for days in the disputed border zone between Israel, Lebanon and Syria. On Tuesday, two rockets fired from Syria hit the Israeli-controlled portion of the Golan Heights without causing injury. On Wednesday, Israel launched airstrikes into Syria targeting Syrian army artillery posts in response. No casualties were reported.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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