Israeli planes attacked Hezbollah targets in south Lebanon on Tuesday, threatening an escalation of clashes along a border that has been relatively calm for nearly four years.
The airstrikes came a day after the guerrilla group fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli bulldozer clearing explosives along the border, killing an Israeli soldier and seriously wounding another.
There were no immediate reports of casualties. The Israeli military said it hit two Hezbollah bases about six miles north of the Israeli border. Three air-to-surface missiles were fired in the two air raids, Lebanese officials said.
The airstrikes were the first since August, when Israeli warplanes targeted a Hezbollah artillery piece.
The Israeli officials said the decision to attack Hezbollah targets was made at a four-hour meeting of senior military commanders on Tuesday. It was decided not attack Syria in order not to inflame the situation, the officials said.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz both said Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for Monday’s incident.
After insisting that the bulldozer had not crossed the border, the Israeli army commander in the area, Col. Yair Golan, told Israel Radio on Tuesday that part of the vehicle had crossed into Lebanon while digging up the explosives.
Syria is widely believed to help arm and fund Hezbollah. Syria is on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Washington has threatened to impose sanctions for harboring anti-Israel militants.
The Shiite Muslim group fought against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000 with a U.N.-approved Israeli pullback. Since then, there have been several cross-border incidents in which Israeli soldiers have been captured and killed. Israeli warplanes often fly over southern Lebanon, breaking the sound barrier.
“If President Assad thinks he’s going to use Hezbollah as the long arm in the fight against us, he should know that our response will be very clear,” Shalom said Tuesday.
Mofaz called Monday’s attack an “intentional provocation by Syria and Hezbollah. Anyone who is involved in directing this attack will be held responsible.”
Although Mofaz called for restraint, he said “Israel has the right, and more importantly, the highest moral obligation to defend its citizens and soldiers.”