TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) – Israel on Thursday stepped up its response to rocket attacks this week with rare airstrikes on Lebanon, the Lebanese military and officials said.
The IDF said in a statement that planes hit the launch sites from which rockets had been fired the day before, as well as an additional target used to attack Israel in the past. The Israeli military blamed the Lebanese state for the bombing and warned “against further attempts to harm Israeli civilians and Israel’s sovereignty.”
The nightly airstrikes in southern Lebanon were a marked escalation at a politically sensitive time. Israel’s new eight-party government coalition is trying to keep the peace under a fragile ceasefire that ended an 11-day war with militant Hamas leaders in Gaza in May. Several incidents leading up to this week’s rocket fire from Lebanon drew attention to Israel’s northern border, and the United States quickly condemned the attacks on Israel.
The strikes also come as Lebanon is mired in multiple crises, including a devastating economic and financial crisis and a political stalemate that has left the country without a functioning government for a full year.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said that Israel’s use of its air force to target Lebanese villages “is the first of its kind since 2006 and indicated the presence of aggressive and escalating intentions” against Lebanon. In a statement, he said Lebanon would file a complaint with the United Nations.
Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah waged a devastating month-long war in 2006 that killed some 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, and around 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The war failed to neutralize the group’s rocket threat, and Israeli officials say Hezbollah’s improved missile arsenal is now capable of striking virtually anywhere in the country.
No one has claimed responsibility for the rocket fire from Lebanon, and Hezbollah has made no comment. Hezbollah-owned Al-Manar TV reported the Israeli strikes around 2 a.m. Thursday, claiming they hit an empty area in the village of Mahmoudiya in the Marjayoun district.
Avichai Adraee, the Israeli army spokesperson in Arabic, said the Lebanese government is responsible for what is happening in its territories and has warned of further attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon.
Three rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israeli territory on Wednesday and the military responded with sustained artillery fire, the IDF said. The announcement came after sirens sounded in northern Israel warning of a possible rocket attack. Two rockets landed inside Israeli territory, the army said.
Channel 12 reported that a rocket exploded in an open area and another was intercepted by Israel’s defense system, known as the Iron Dome. Israeli media reported that the incoming rockets set off fires near Kiryat Shmona, a community of around 20,000 people near the Lebanese border.
The Lebanese army reported 92 artillery shells fired by Israel at Lebanese villages following rocket fire from Lebanon. He said Israeli artillery shelling caused a fire in the village of Rashaya al-Fukhar. In a statement, the Lebanese army also said it was carrying out patrols in the border region and had set up a number of checkpoints and opened an investigation to determine the source of the rocket fire.
There have been several similar incidents in recent months.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned the rocket attacks from Lebanon.
“Israel has the right to defend itself against such attacks,” he told reporters in Washington, adding that the United States would remain engaged with partners “in the region with the aim of defusing the situation.”
At the United Nations, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, was aware of the rocket fire and the response of Israeli artillery. He said the UNIFIL commander Major General Stefano Del Col called for a ceasefire and urged both sides to “exercise maximum restraint to avoid further escalation”.
Karam reported from Beirut.