JERUSALEM – Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group, claimed responsibility for a volley of rockets over Israel’s northern border on Friday, the latest in a series of cross-border attacks that have escalated regional tensions .
The salvo was significantly larger than a few previous rocket launches from Lebanon in recent weeks, and the first to be claimed by Hezbollah in many years. On Friday afternoon, Israeli political and security leaders held consultations on how to respond.
The hostilities were the most recent in a long shadow war between Israel and Iran and its proxies by land, air and sea, which has increasingly come to light.
Tensions between Israel and Iran’s allies have been further exacerbated by expectations that Israel may soon respond to an attack last week on an Israel-linked merchant ship in the Indian Ocean. The two countries have repeatedly attacked their ships at sea over the past two years; in particular, Israel has targeted Iranian ships carrying fuel or weapons from Iran to its allies.
Israel and several major powers blamed Iran for last week’s attack, which killed two foreign nationals on board the ship – a Romanian officer and a British security guard. On Friday, the foreign ministers of the United States, Britain, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, Italy and the European Union issued a joint statement condemning this which she called “a deliberate and targeted attack,” adding that “all available evidence clearly points to Iranian. “
The US Army Central Command released a report on its investigation into the episode on Friday, indicating that the ship, the Mercer Street, was hit on July 30 by an Iranian-made aerial drone “loaded with an explosive. military grade ”, damaging the ship and killing both victims. He said two more drones had targeted the ship the day before but missed it, hitting nearby.
“Explosives experts were able to recover several parts” from the drone that struck the ship, according to the report, “including a vertical stabilizer (part of the wing) and internal components that were almost identical to the previously collected examples of Iranian aerial drones “. .
Israel has called for more of an international response, and significant preparations are underway for an Israeli military response against Iran for the attack on the ship, according to three Israeli officials with knowledge of the decision-making process on security matters national level, and who asked not to be named during discussions on sensitive operational matters.
Despite heightened tensions between Israel and Iran across the Middle East, Hezbollah and the IDF have shown a desire to avoid an escalation and appear to be trying to defuse the situation. But the IDF also said it would not allow attacks to continue unimpeded along the border.
“We do not wish to degenerate into all-out war, but we are very prepared for it,” said Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, spokesman for the IDF.
The IDF said 19 rockets were fired from Lebanon and 10 were intercepted by the Israeli air defense system while others landed in open areas. No casualties or damage were reported on either side, and Israel said it responded to rocket launch sites inside Lebanon.
The IDF said civilian life along the border could continue as long as normal and tourist attractions remain open, signaling that no further major action is imminent as many Israelis are on vacation in the North.
Hezbollah also signaled that its rocket salute was not intended to upset the current balance, noting in a statement that its fighters had fired dozens of rockets at open areas near Israeli sites in a disputed border area known as the name of Shebaa farms.
The Shebaa Farms – known in Israel as Mount Dov – are a strip claimed by Israel, Lebanon, and sometimes Syria near the Three Nations Intersection, adjacent to the Golan Heights.
Hezbollah said its rockets were a response to Israeli airstrikes on Thursday that also hit open land in southern Lebanon. Israeli airstrikes on Lebanese territory have been rare in recent years.
The strikes came after militants fired rockets at Israel on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks. The latest rocket attacks from Lebanon have been attributed to rogue Palestinian groups.
In an embarrassing turn of events for Hezbollah, which prides itself on the secrecy of its military operations, angry residents of a village in southern Lebanon arrested one of the rocket crews after it fired, filmed videos of a launcher in the back of a pick-up. truck and posted the images on social media.
In other videos seen by the New York Times, residents of the Druze sect of Chouya village dragged Hezbollah operatives out of their cars, hit them on the head and yelled at them.
Two residents said in telephone interviews that villagers heard the launch near their village and went to attack the crew because they feared the outgoing rocket fire would result in Israeli retaliation against their community.
Both spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation from Hezbollah.
In social media comments on the videos, some Lebanese criticized Hezbollah for risking another war with Israel as the country suffers from a deep economic crisis.
“No drugs, no diesel, no hospitals. The situation in the country is bad. There is no government, the army is tired, so why this timing for a war? one person wrote.
Another asked why Hezbollah had not fired rockets from its stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Hezbollah admitted that some of its fighters had been arrested in the village.
The Lebanese army said it arrested four people in Chouya who fired rockets and seized their launcher.
Colonel Shefler, the Israeli military spokesman, said Hezbollah’s claim of responsibility on Friday was likely intended to show that the organization still controls the southern Lebanese border area and that Israeli airstrikes would not go unanswered.
Zvika Haimovich, a retired Israeli general and former air force commander, said Hezbollah and Israel were trying to act within the formula established in recent years and that he was in the process. Israel’s interest in keeping its border with Lebanon calm and “keeping Lebanon out of the game.”
But given what he described as advancing Hezbollah’s Iran-backed program to develop precise missiles in Lebanon, Haimovich added, “We are close to a point where Israel will have to act against it. Hezbollah in Lebanon ”, and that the events of the last few days have brought this point even closer.
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv and Ben Hubbard from Beirut. Hwaida Saad and Asmaa al-Omar contributed reporting from Beirut.