JERUSALEM — A series of military exchanges across the border between Israel and Lebanon escalated Friday when Hezbollah fired a barrage of rockets, prompting retaliatory strikes in Lebanese territory, according to the Israeli military.
Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militant group and political party that controls southern Lebanon, immediately claimed responsibility for Friday’s assault. Previous rocket attacks in recent weeks were widely blamed on unidentified Palestinian groups.
In a statement sent via WhatsApp, a media coordinator for Hezbollah said: “At 11:15 am on Friday, and in response to the Israeli air raids on open ground [in southern Lebanon] early Thursday, [two groups] in the Islamic resistance bombarded open land in the perimeter of the Israeli occupation’s positions in Shebaa Farms with tens of 122 mlm grade rockets.”
The Israeli military said 19 rockets were fired toward Israel, with three falling short in Lebanon. Of the rest, 10 were intercepted by Israel’s air defense system and six landed in open countryside near the towns of Ein Qiniyye and Neve Ativ, the military said.
Within the hour, the Israeli military said it was “striking the launch sources in Lebanon.” United Nations monitors confirmed Israeli artillery fire over the border.
Residents of northern Israel and in the occupied Golan Heights were instructed to seek shelter, according to reports.
The United Nations, which maintains a monitoring force along the border, called on all sides to implement an immediate cease-fire.
“This is a very dangerous situation, with escalatory actions seen on both sides over the past two days,” Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, commander of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, said in a statement. “UNIFIL is actively engaging with the parties through all formal and informal liaison and coordination mechanisms to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.”
An Israeli military spokesman said Hezbollah seemed to be reasserting its dominance in southern Lebanon following recent rocket launches attributed to other militant groups. But the careful targeting of Friday’s attack away from populated areas suggests that Hezbollah is not seeking an outright confrontation, according to the spokesman, Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler.
“We don’t believe Hezbollah wants a full-out war, and we definitely don’t want a full-out war, although we are very prepared for that,” Shefler said in a briefing with reporters Friday.
The flare-up comes at a time of uncertainty in both countries.
Israel is concerned about Iran’s provocative activities in the region, including a recent fatal drone strike on an Israeli-affiliated tanker in the Arabian Sea that U.S., British and Israeli officials have blamed on Iran. Israel holds Iran responsible for the actions of groups it backs around the region, including Hezbollah.
In Lebanon, Hezbollah and other factions are wrestling with myriad crises. The country is sinking deeper into economic ruin, with the currency’s official value having weakened more than tenfold against the dollar. Gasoline and bread shortages abound.
A fuel shortage has left much of the generator-reliant country in the dark as 20-hour electricity cuts have become the norm, straining generator use.
An explosion in a warehouse that ripped through the capital, Beirut, on Aug. 4, 2020, led to the resignation of the government and has left the country mired in a political stalemate. The incumbent prime minister was unable to form a government and resigned last month, after nine months of gridlock and political infighting.
On Wednesday, the first anniversary of the blast that killed more than 200 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, protests erupted against the political elite and all parties, including Hezbollah. Security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets against demonstrators in Beirut.
Those internal tensions were on display Friday when a truck used to fire rockets toward Israel was surrounded by Lebanese citizens apparently angered that their neighborhoods might become targets for Israeli retaliation, according to photos and video on social media.
Hezbollah, in a second statement, confirmed the encounter between its forces and civilians and sought to make clear that the attack was launched far from residential areas.
“The Islamic Resistance was, continues to, and will remain the most careful over its people, to not expose them to any harm during its resistance work,” the group said.
Images of the encounter appeared to show the presence of at least one uniformed Lebanese soldier. Later in the day, the Lebanese military said in a statement that it arrested four people involved in the rocket launch and seized equipment used in the attack.
The statement said about 40 Israeli artillery strikes caused a number of fires and that Lebanese forces were coordinating on the ground with UNIFIL to restore calm to the area.
Dadouch reported from Beirut.