by Laurie Kellman and Zeena Karam | The Associated Press
TEL AVIV, Israel — Israel stepped up its response to rocket attacks from Lebanon the previous day by launching rare airstrikes on its northern neighbor on Thursday, the military and Lebanese officials said.
An Israeli military statement said the jet struck the launch sites from which the rockets were fired, as well as an additional target used to attack Israel in the past. The military blamed the state of Lebanon for the shelling and warned “against further attempts to harm Israeli civilians and the sovereignty of Israel”.
The overnight airstrikes in southern Lebanon were a marked escalation in a politically sensitive time. Israel’s new eight-party governing coalition is trying to keep the peace under a delicate ceasefire that ended an 11-day war with the militant Hamas rulers in Gaza in May. Several rocket launches from Lebanon this week have focused on Israel’s northern border. The US strongly condemned the attack on Israel.
Lebanon has been mired in several crises, including a devastating economic and financial meltdown and a political deadlock that has left the country without a functional government for a full year.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said Israel’s use of its air force to target Lebanese villages “is the first of its kind since 2006 and signaled the presence of aggressive, provocative intentions against Lebanon”. In a statement, he said Lebanon would submit a complaint to the United Nations.
UNIFIL, the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as Stefano del Col., called on the parties to take “immediate action” to defuse tensions and prevent violations of the cease-fire, effective since 2006.
Israel and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah fought a devastating, month-long war in 2006 that killed about 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and about 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The war group’s rockets failed to neutralize the threat, and Israeli officials say Iran-backed Hezbollah’s advanced missile arsenal is now capable of striking almost anywhere in Israel.
No one has claimed responsibility for the rockets fired from Lebanon and Hezbollah has not commented. Hezbollah-owned al-Manar TV reported the Israeli attacks at around 2 a.m. Thursday, saying they hit an empty area in the village of Mahmoudia in Marzayoun district.
Avichai Adrai, the Arabic-language spokesman for the Israeli military, said the Lebanese government was responsible for what happens in its territory and warned against further attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon.
On Wednesday, three rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory and Israel responded with continuous artillery fire. Sirens were sounded in northern Israel warning of a possible rocket attack. The military said two rockets landed in Israeli territory.
Channel 12 said one rocket exploded in an open area and the other was intercepted by Israel’s defense system, known as the Iron Dome. Israeli media reported that incoming rockets opened fire near Kiryat Shamona, a community of about 20,000 people, near the Lebanese border.
The Lebanese military said Wednesday’s rocket fire from Lebanon resulted in 92 artillery shells fired by Israel on Lebanese villages. It said the fire broke out in the village of Rasha al-Fukhar as a result of Israeli artillery shelling. The Lebanese military also said it was patrolling the border area and had set up several checkpoints and launched an investigation to find the source of the rocket fire.
There have been many such incidents in recent months.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the rocket launch from Lebanon.
“Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks,” he told reporters in Washington on Wednesday.
Karam reported from Beirut.