IDF attacks Hezbollah posts after Har Dov shelling
France warns escalation on border could hamper Lebanon's first elections; Hezbollah fires 9 mortars at outpost; IDF hits Hezbollah positions.
The security situation on the Lebanese border heated up on Friday, as Israel Defense Forces planes, gunships and tanks destroyed Hezbollah posts in Lebanon, in response to Hezbollah shelling of IDF positions.
No IDF soldiers were wounded during the fighting. The number of Hezbollah casualties is unknown.
The border has been quiet since the IDF activity ended on Friday night. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said over the weekend, "We shall not open a northern front and have no interest in escalation there."
The Hezbollah mortar fire was the third attack from Lebanon within less than 48 hours. While nobody had claimed responsibility for the two previous incidents - Israel assumed small Palestinian groups sponsored by Hezbollah were behind them - this time Hezbollah took responsibility for the attack.
A senior government source said, "Hezbollah has an interest in heating up the border and we have an interest to act with restraint, up to a certain point. We believe they will not escalate the situation further."
Tension rose along the Lebanese border last Monday when the IDF accidentally fired a shell over the eastern part of the Lebanese border while trying to dismantle explosives placed by Hezbollah on Har Dov. No one was hurt by the shell.
On Wednesday, the eve of Independence Day, a Katyusha rocket was fired from Lebanon, striking a bakery in Shlomi's industrial zone and causing extensive damage, but no casualties. On Thursday night two more rockets were fired from Lebanon. They landed in an open area on the slopes of Har Dov.
On Friday, close to 4 P.M., another volley was fired. This time at least 12 mortar shells landed near the IDF's Gladiola position. Nobody was hurt. Israel's response was harsher this time.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz gave his approval to attack Hezbollah positions that had been targeted in advance, along the border.
In the central sector, IDF tanks fired toward a Hezbollah position opposite Moshav Dovev. In the eastern sector, fighter planes and gunships attacked three other positions. The IDF reported that all the positions were destroyed. Sources in the Northern Command said Hezbollah had suffered casualties, but this was not confirmed in Lebanon.
The United States, France and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued statements expressing concern over the deterioration in Lebanon and called on both sides to act with restraint. Senior government and military sources said Israel was not interested in escalation and that Sharon had instructed the IDF to retaliate in strength, but at isolated points. This was meant to deter the Hezbollah, but not to lead to further escalation, the sources said.
Major General Benny Gantz, head of the Northern Command, said on Friday that Hezbollah had gone too far lately, and that Israel needed to retaliate. Gantz told reporters, "We retaliated today, and if we have to retaliate more sharply, we will."
Gantz said he held the Lebanese government, which has failed to restrain Hezbollah, responsible for the shellings.
Sheikh Nabil Kauk, the senior Hezbollah leader in southern Lebanon, said the organization had reacted to IDF machine gun fire a few hours earlier, which had hit a house in Kafr Shuba. IDF sources confirmed the firing, saying it was intended to warn a group of shepherds who had come suspiciously close to the border at Har Dov.
Kauk said Hezbollah could not no longer restrain itself after "Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty."
Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud blamed Israel for the escalation on the border and called on the international community and the United States to act "to ensure stability in the area." Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati said he was monitoring events closely and was in touch with UNIFIL.
IDF sources said Hezbollah wanted to escalate the situation with a view toward the elections due in Lebanon at the end of the month.
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