MAJIDIYA: A Hezbollah missile attack killed two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday and Israel responded with air and ground strikes on southern Lebanon, where a UN peacekeeper was killed.
Amid concerns of further escalation, Israeli officials warned they may take more steps after longtime enemy Hezbollah claimed the attack on a military convoy in the Israeli-occupied Shebaa Farms area.
The Israeli army said in a statement that it had responded with “combined aerial and ground strikes” on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon after the attack — an apparent retaliation for a recent Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members.
Clouds of smoke could be seen rising from Majidiya, one of several Lebanese border villages that were hit by Israeli shelling.
The UN force in southern Lebanon said one of its peacekeepers was killed during the shelling and a source in the Spanish embassy told AFP he had been a Spanish soldier.
The UNIFIL mission urged all sides to show “maximum restraint to prevent an escalation”.
Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said an anti-tank missile hit a military vehicle in the Shebaa Farms, which is on the border with Lebanon and close to the ceasefire line with Syria.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven wounded in Wednesday’s attack, the military said in a statement.
Israeli media said that none of the seven wounded had suffered life-threatening injuries.
Lerner said mortar fire was also aimed at several military facilities in the area but that no one was hurt.
Hezbollah quickly claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it had “targeted an Israeli military convoy in the Shebaa Farms composed of several vehicles which was transporting several Zionist soldiers and officers.”
“There were several casualties in the enemy’s ranks,” Hezbollah said in a statement broadcast on the group’s Al-Manar television channel.
Al-Manar reported that Hezbollah — which said the attack was carried out by its “Quneitra martyrs” in reference to the deadly Israeli air strike on the nearby Golan — targeted nine Israeli military vehicles and had killed “a large number” of troops.
Shortly after the hit on the convoy, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the Jewish state would respond to any attack, saying the army was “ready to act with force on any front”.
Israel’s chief of staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz convened an emergency session of his top brass, the army said.
Lebanese security sources told AFP that Israeli tanks began shelling areas of southeastern Lebanon shortly after the convoy attack.
Two sources told AFP that more than a dozen shells had been fired on Lebanese border villages and that Israeli warplanes were flying over the area.
There was no immediate information on casualties.
“At least 15 shells have been fired against five villages in the south,” one security source said, adding that Majidiya was hardest hit.
Another security source said the Israeli army was firing a shell into the area about every two minutes, and was using artillery as well as tanks.
“This is not necessarily the last response,” chief Israeli army spokesman Brigadier General Moti Almoz warned on Twitter.
Israeli security sources said at least one house in the divided village of Ghajar had been hit but there was no immediate word on casualties.
Half of the village lies in Lebanon and the rest lies in the Israeli-occupied sector.
All roads to the village were blocked off by Israeli police, with a crowd of villagers anxiously waiting to get home to check on their families.
“Three houses were hit by rockets,” said Hussein, 31, relaying what he had heard by telephone from relatives in the village of 2,000 inhabitants.
He said a number of villagers had been wounded but did not know how badly.
Other frantic family members argued with police to be allowed in to collect their children, who had been locked inside the village school for their own safety.
The fresh exchanges came after an Israeli air strike on the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.
The day before the raid, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to retaliate against Israel for its repeated strikes on targets in Syria and boasted the Shiite militant movement was stronger than ever.
Israel occupied parts of Lebanon for 22 years until 2000 and the two countries are still technically at war.
In 2006, Israel fought a bloody war against Hezbollah that killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
The Shebaa Farms area is a mountainous, narrow sliver of land rich in water resources measuring 25 square kilometres (10 square miles). It has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Middle East war.
Since Israeli troops withdrew from south Lebanon in 2000, Shebaa has become an area of friction between Israel and Hezbollah.
Wednesday’s attack was hailed by the Palestinian Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“We affirm Hezbollah’s right to respond to the Israeli occupation,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said, while Jihad’s Quds Brigade hailed the attack as “heroic.”