Several anti-tank missiles were fired from Lebanon Sunday at an Israeli army base and military vehicle in Israel's north, the Israeli army said. The incident, which came after a week of growing tension between Israel and Hezbollah, caused some damage but led to no casulaties.
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The Israeli military returned fire at the sources of the strike and at targets in southern Lebanon, the Israel Defense Forces said, later adding that after several hours, the exchange of fire has ended. This was confirmed by Lebanese media.
Lebanon's Al-Mayadeen TV initially said that Hezbollah has destroyed an Israeli military vehicle near the border, and that the strike "killed and wounded those inside," but the Israeli military later refuted those claims.
The IDF spokesperson said that at around 5 P.M., "A number of anti-tank missiles were fired from Lebanese territory at an Israeli army base and a military vehicle in the Avivim area." In addition to artillery fire, an IDF aircraft struck the Hezbollah cell that fired the missiles, the statement said.
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"The IDF will continue to keep a high threat level - both defensive and offensive - for a wide variety of scenarios," the statement added.
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Speaking before a planned appearance with the visiting president of Honduras, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that Israel had responded "with 100 shells, aerial fire and various measures" into Lebanese territory. He said that "We have no casualties - not even a scratch."
"I have given instructions to be prepared for any scenario, and we will decide on what's next depending on how things develop," Netanyahu added.
Later on Sunday, it was revealed that the IDF conducted a diversionary maneuver that included evacuating bandaged soldiers to a hospital.
After the missile hit the armored vehicle, which was being used as an ambulance, the IDF called in a helicopter to the scene, and two soldiers were filmed being carried out on a stretcher.
Rambam Medical Center in Haifa had announced the arrival of the two soldiers, and about an hour later, IDF Spokesperson Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis announced that there were no Israeli military casualties. Manelis refused to comment on visuals showing the helicopter evacuating the soldiers to the hospital.
Manelis claimed that it was no coincidence that an hour passed between Rambam's announcement of wounded soldiers and his own statement that no soldiers had been hurt. Manelis refused to elaborate on the progression of events. Rambam later published an unusual notice, according to which the soldiers brought in by the helicopter were examined, released and found not to be suffering from any injuries.
The IDF refuses to comment on the possibility that the sequence of events was planned in advance in order to mislead Hezbollah and give the group the impression that it succeeded in getting the reaction it wanted. The delay in announcing that there were no casualties despite the helicopter evacuation was seemingly intended to create a significant window to de-escalate the situation, with the intention of restoring calm to the area.
Hezbollah says not seeking escalation
Hezbollah sources talking to Qatari channel Al Jazeera said the Lebanese movement was not seeking escalation.
The United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, called on both Israel and Hezbollah to exercise restraint in the exchange of fire. Its commanding officer, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, "is in contact with the parties urging the maximum restraint and asked to cease all activities endangering the cessation of hostilities."
After calm was restored, Maj. Gen. Del Col called the anti-tank fire a "violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 and clearly directed at undermining stability in the area," and stressed the need to maintain security along the border.
"UNIFIL is following up to determine the facts and circumstances of the incident, including any casualties or damages caused as a result. At this time UNIFIL has no reports of casualties from either side," he said.
Iran's state news agency IRNA quoted a senior Iranian security official as saying that Hezbollah's policy is aimed at safeguarding the interests of Lebanon. "Hezbollah enjoys significant popular support in Lebanon ... the Zionist regime's (Israel) punishment by Hezbollah was a reciprocal measure that displayed the resistance front's determination to counter threats," said Ali Shamkhani.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and French President Emmanuel Macron to "intervene immediately" to de-escalate the situation, Hariri's office said.
A U.S. State Department official declined to speak about any diplomatic discussions, but said: "We are aware of these reports and are concerned about the escalating tensions along the border. The United States fully supports Israel's right to self-defense."
The State Department official said Hezbollah should refrain from "hostile actions which threaten Lebanon's security, stability, and sovereignty," and suggested Iran had a hand in the violence.
"This is another example of the destabilizing role of Iranian proxies in undermining peace and security in the region," the official said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin opened his meeting with the Ethiopian president with a message to Hezbollah, saying that it is known to all those wishing to harm Israel that "We are ready and prepared to protect the citizens of Israel wherever they may be. We are ready, and we do not want to show you just how much." He added, "Take heed that the quiet can prevail only on both sides of the border."
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The Lebanese army said that Israel fired more than 40 shells at border villages, causing blazes, and that the shelling continued into the evening. It did not report any Lebanese casualties.
According to reports in Lebanese media, there was fire in the Maroun al-Ras area, on the Israeli border.
Across the border, residents of the Israeli communities of Avivim and Yiron reported hearing explosions. Avivim resident Eliezer Biton told Haaretz that exchanges of fire continue. "The community is locked down. Everyone is in shelters or protected rooms," he said, speaking from his shelter. He was near the border, across from Maroun al-Ras, when the first strike took place. "We were ready for it. There's been tension in past days," he said.
Israeli defense sources say Hezbollah’s offensive, which included missile fire at tanks and other military targets all at once, was designed to make it difficult for the IDF to respond immediately.
The Israeli army instructed municipalities near the border to open their shelters, and announced that residents who live up to four kilometers from the Lebanon border should remain in their homes and enter shelters if sirens sound. It also urged locals to cancel all activities along the border, including farming and children's activities.
The IDF set up roadblocks on arteries leading north, and blocked traffic from entering northern towns.
Earlier Sunday, the Lebanese army said that an Israeli drone violated Lebanon's airspace and dropped incendiary material that sparked a fire in a pine forest by the border.
The Lebanese army statement said it was following up with UN peacekeepers in the area but gave no further details.
Other reports from Lebanon claimed that unmanned aerial vehicles dropped flammables on a grove nearby known as the Bastra Farm in order to set fire to the place so as to expose further targets.
The Israeli army confirmed fires broke out in the area due to military action.
Over the weekend, illuminating bombs were hurled over the Shebba Farms, and Lebanese media outlets reported that fires were sparked as a result.
The reported attack comes a day after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that his Shi'ite group will retaliate for drone attacks last week in Beirut that he has attributed to Israel "in every possible place along the border."
"Our response for last week's events will be [launched from] within Lebanon against Israeli targets. We usually strike in the area of the Shebba Farms [Mount Dov]," but this time the group will not limit its attacks on one area, he added.
The Israeli military bolstered troops on the northern border over the weekend due to concerns that such a retaliatory attack will take place.
The Israeli defense establishment still believes the Shi'ite group is determined to respond to the attack, but is not interested in sparking a war. Nonetheless, security forces are preparing for the possibility of a violent round of fighting that could lead to another strike in Lebanon. Aerial defense batteries have been deployed in the north to thwart drones and other UAVs that terror organization may try to launch to attack Israel. The Israeli army has also instructed that the airspace near the northern border be closed off. The Israel Navy, meanwhile, is preparing for possible attacks on Israeli vessels.
On Saturday, local residents reported seeing many troops moving around the area of the Golan Heights, and said they saw tanks and armored personnel carriers. Illuminating bombs were fired overnight on Friday near the Druze village of Majdal Shams, and Lebanese media outlets reported that the bombs had caused fires to break out in the area.
The Israeli military began preparing for a retaliatory attack by Hezbollah following an attack last week, which the group claimed Israel had carried out: Two explosive-laden drones hit a machine designed to improve precision missiles, which was being operated in Dahieh – a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut. The Israeli defense establishment assessed that Hezbollah would try to retaliate but would react moderately; the army minimized patrols along the borders with Lebanon and Syria in order to avoid presenting possible targets for the group to attack.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.