Deadly Hezbollah-Israel border clash raises specter of new conflict

Israeli military engages in border crossfire with Hezbollah after militant group fires anti-tank missile

A fresh spasm of violence Wednesday along contested terrain between Israel and Lebanon looks ominously like the scenario that sparked the 2006 war between the two bitter adversaries, raising the prospect of another major conflict in the heart of the Middle East.

Israel acknowledged that a flurry of antitank missiles fired by Hezbollah had killed two of its soldiers and wounded seven, in the Lebanese militant and political movement's most lethal assault on Israeli forces since 2006.

Also killed, apparently by retaliatory Israeli fire into Lebanese territory, was a Spanish peacekeeper serving in the 10,000-strong United Nations force along the “Blue Line” separating Lebanese and Israeli lands.

But though the risk of a larger conflagration prompted international concern, with the U.N. urging all parties to exercise “maximum restraint” to avoid escalation, analysts in both countries said it appeared unlikely that Wednesday's attacks would morph from a limited border incident into a broader conflict.

The 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 erupted with a Hezbollah ambush on an Israeli patrol that resulted in the deaths of three Israeli soldiers and the capture of two others.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that those responsible for the latest attack will “pay the full price,” citing the Israeli onslaught against the Gaza Strip last summer that claimed the lives of 73 people on the Israeli side, mostly soldiers, and more than 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, according to international agencies.

“To those trying to challenge us on our northern border, I suggest looking at what happened not far from here in the Gaza Strip,” said Netanyahu, speaking in Sderot in southern Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is visiting China, said that Israel must react with “a harsh and disproportionate response” to any fire on its territory.

But analysts generally predicted that this time around Israeli and Hezbollah officials would endeavor to avoid having the incident deteriorate into a 2006-style conflict, an inconclusive war that caused considerable damage and loss of life, especially on the Lebanese side.

Many Israeli observers were doubtful that the nation's leaders, just months after the bloody Gaza conflict and weeks before national elections scheduled for March, would plunge the country into what probably would be a prolonged war with a battle-tested foe much more formidable than Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules Gaza.

“Israel must retaliate but in a way that will keep the escalation under control,” Amos Yadlin, a former army intelligence chief, told Israel Radio. “This is not an easy formula, but this is the art of strategic thinking.”

The strike Wednesday was not as lethal as the 2006 Hezbollah assault. That incident also resulted in the deaths of five additional Israeli soldiers in a failed rescue attempt.

The latest attack was widely seen as Hezbollah's calibrated response to a presumed Israeli airstrike in southern Syria on Jan. 18, in which the casualties included six Hezbollah members and an Iranian general, whose presence highlighted the Lebanese group's close ties to Tehran. Among the Hezbollah casualties was the son of Imad Mughniyeh, a storied commander killed in Damascus, Syria, in 2008 in a suspected Israeli car bombing.

After such a humiliating blow, experts said, Hezbollah's leaders felt obliged to strike back in a fashion that was muscular but not unduly provocative.

“Everyone knew the response was coming and that it would be prompt,” noted Amal Saad Ghorayeb, a Lebanese political scientist who has written extensively about Hezbollah. “This was very well planned. I'm sure Hezbollah had many scenarios played out.”

The Iranian press lauded Wednesday's Hezbollah attack. But, despite a torrent of bellicose language from Tehran, observers generally said Iran was unlikely to push for a wider confrontation with Israel, despite the loss of its general. Among other factors, such a conflict might affect nuclear talks that Iran hopes will result in a lifting of economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic.

“I don't think Iranian diplomats and the government want any kind of escalation at the moment,” said Mirzababa Motaharnejad, a member of Iran's moderate Democracy political party.

When it came, Hezbollah's attack was precise and did not hit Israeli civilians, though the group has the capability to send rockets deep into Israeli territory. The strike occurred near the three-way border with Syria, in a strip of Israeli-occupied land known in Lebanon as the Shabaa Farms, which is claimed by Lebanon.

All those mitigating details — and the fact that the attack was clearly in retaliation for the earlier presumed Israeli air assault — have led many to believe that hostilities may be contained.

“It was Israel that opened this round with the strike in Syria,” Israel Ziv, a retired major general, told Israel Radio, speculating that Israeli strategists may have concluded that Hezbollah's response would be “within the set game rules.”

But many warned that any misstep or miscalculation in such a combustible atmosphere could have catastrophic results and lead to a cycle of inevitable escalation.

Domestically, Netanyahu is already facing some pressure to not opt for significant escalation.

The left-wing party Meretz has begun running a Facebook banner saying “No to the Third Lebanon War,” alluding to conflicts in 2006 and 1982 that have left a checkered legacy. Hezbollah arose after the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

“Sinking in the Lebanese quagmire will not serve our citizens' interests,” Zehava Galon, Meretz party chairwoman, wrote in a Facebook posting. “We have already had too much blood and bereavement this year.”

Because of Hezbollah's secrecy, it takes guesswork to ascertain whether it has concluded that the precision strike evens the score. But the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, now will be able to boast of a demoralizing strike against the Zionist foe when he addresses Hezbollah's faithful this week.

Hezbollah seems unlikely to want to get embroiled in a full-scale conflict with Israel at a time when it is deeply mired in the war in Syria, where thousands of its militiamen are fighting alongside the forces of President Bashar Assad.

A two-front war would drain resources and probably erode domestic backing for the group — designated a terrorist organization by Washington — which is trying to portray itself as a responsible governing party amid the turmoil of Lebanese politics.

“I would have to think that Hezbollah is betting on a relatively contained conflict,” said Ghorayeb, the political scientist. “I don't think either side wants a fully blown war.”

Special correspondents Sobelman and Bulos reported respectively from Jerusalem and Amman, Jordan. Times staff writer McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

5:45 p.m.: This article has been updated and expanded.

10:50 a.m.: This article has been updated with the names of the slain Israelis and additional comment by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

7:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with detail about the attack on the Israeli convoy.

6:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with a report from the Israeli military that two of its soldiers were killed and seven wounded.

4:45 a.m.: This article has been updated with information about evacuations in Israel and an emergency meeting at the Israeli Defense Ministry. 

4:28 a.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon confirming the death of a peacekeeper. 

4:14 a.m.: This article has been updated with Al Manar reporting that a Spanish U.N. peacekeeper has been killed in the conflict. 

3:43 a.m.: This article has been updated with additional background. 

3:24 a.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional details and background. 

This article was originally published at 2:50 a.m.

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