The Washington Post

Israel fires artillery shells into Lebanon after rockets fall

An Israeli soldier walks out of a military bunker on the Israel-Lebanon border near the northern town of Metula, Dec. 29, 2013. Rockets launched from south Lebanon struck northern Israel on Sunday and Israel responded with artillery shells. (Baz Ratner/Reuters)

Five rockets were fired from southern Lebanon toward Israel on Sunday morning, with at least one landing several miles from a border town in Israel’s north. No injuries or serious damage were reported.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Israeli forces responded with “massive shelling toward the launch area,” and he warned that if rocket fire from Lebanon continued, the Israelis “will use even greater force.”

The Lebanese military issued a statement saying that Israel responded by firing 32 shells at the rocket launch sites, according to Lebanon’s official National News Agency. No injuries were reported in Lebanon.

This is the first time since August that Israel’s northern border has experienced rocket fire from Lebanon. An Israeli soldier was fatally shot this month at the border fence by a Lebanese soldier, who authorities in Lebanon said was acting alone.

No group in Lebanon took responsibility for the attack.

The Shiite political and militant group Hezbollah, whose armed wing this year was branded a terrorist organization by the European Union, has its stronghold in southern Lebanon.

An Israeli military spokesman said the five missiles appeared to be 122mm Russian-made Katyushas, most likely supplied by Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, “We hold the Lebanese government responsible for firing that is carried out from within its territory.”

Netanyahu also appeared to blame Hezbollah for the rocket fire, although Israeli military sources have not confirmed any role by the group.

“What is happening in Lebanon is that Hezbollah is stationing thousands of missiles and rockets in apartments, in the heart of the civilian population, and is thus perpetrating two war crimes simultaneously,” the Israeli prime minister said. “It is organizing the firing at civilians, just as it did today, and it is hiding behind civilians as human shields.”

Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli army major and former head of the military intelligence unit that focuses on jihadist groups, said Sunday’s round of rocket fire showed new characteristics and most probably did not originate from Hezbollah, with which Israel fought a three-week war in summer 2006.

“Previous incidents of fire on the northern border against Israel were conducted on the western side of the country, along the coast. This morning’s fire comes from the eastern side,” Oreg said.

He said the attacks were most likely the work of a smaller jihadist group hoping to reignite the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, which is embroiled in fighting in support of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

“The jihadis see Hezbollah as an enemy no smaller than they see Israel as an enemy,” Oreg said. “If this is a jihadi group, then it is likely they want Israel to fight against Hezbollah.”

Israel and its neighbors have faced heightened tensions this month. Several stray mortar rounds have landed in the Israeli-­occupied Golan Heights. This month, the Israeli army fired into Syria after its troops were shot along the Israeli-Syrian demilitarized zone.

After an Israeli civilian was killed by a sniper along the security fence with the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military responded with an air, tank and infantry assault on the Palestinian enclave, killing at least two people, according to Palestinian reports.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) said its radars detected at least two rockets fired toward Israel at 7:35 a.m., after which the Israel Defense Forces returned artillery fire.

“This is a very serious incident,” Maj. Gen. Paolo Serra, the commander of the U.N. force, said, adding that it was “clearly directed at undermining stability in the area.”

Lebanon’s state news agency said the Israeli military “violently bombed” the border area after the rocket fire, but it reported no casualties.

The Lebanese army said it discovered rocket launchpads near Hasbaya, just north of the border.

The exchange of fire came as crowds gathered in Beirut for the funeral of former finance minister Mohamad Chatah, who was assassinated in a car bombing Friday. Allied politicians were quick to blame Hezbollah for the killing of Chatah, a former ambassador to the United States and senior aide to Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement political party.

Chatah and his bodyguard, one of six others killed in the explosion, were laid to rest in the same mausoleum as former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad’s father, who was killed in a 2005 car bombing.

Loveday Morris in Beirut and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.

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