Hezbollah and the Lebanese army have blamed Israel for a drone attack on Beirut on Sunday morning while the leader of the Iran-backed Shiite militia and political party threatened retaliation.
“Hezbollah will not allow such an aggression,” the group’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a televised speech after two drones struck the city. “The time when Israeli aircraft come and bombard parts of Lebanon is over.”
The Israeli army declined to comment on the incident. In recent weeks, Israeli forces have reportedly attacked a base in Iraq being used by Iranian forces as well as locations in Syria that Israeli officials said were being used by Iran to transfer advanced weapons to allied groups that could use them to threaten Israel’s borders.
U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a phone call Sunday that he supported Israel’s right to defend itself from threats from Iran, according to a statement released by the State Department.
Pompeo also spoke to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, according to a statement from Hariri’s office, and “stressed the need to avoid any escalation.” Although Hariri said Lebanon was committed to “the obligations of international resolutions,” he nevertheless emphasized the danger of what he described as “continuous Israeli violations” of Lebanese sovereignty.
The first drone fell in the Moawwad neighborhood in Beirut’s southern suburbs, according to the Lebanese army, while the second, which was equipped with explosives, detonated around 2:30 in the morning and caused “material damage.”
An army team cordoned off the site and “took the necessary procedures,” army officials said in a statement.
Local activists shared pictures on social media that purportedly showed a drone that had been brought down by a resident who threw rocks at it. Later, a second drone appeared in the same area equipped with explosives, Nasrallah said.
The drone detonated with a powerful blast that knocked out one of Hezbollah’s media offices. The group said there were no casualties, but a correspondent for the state-run National News Agency said three people in the media center were lightly injured.
Images broadcast by local TV channels from inside the media office showed a room in disarray, with glass fragments blanketing damaged furniture adorned with promotional pictures of Iranian and Lebanese Shiite religious figures.
Hezbollah spokesman Mohammad Afif said the group had taken possession of a downed drone and was analyzing its trajectory and the targets of its reconnaissance. Activists identified it as a commercially produced DJI Matrice drone, which according to the company website has a maximum operational range of three miles. Beirut is roughly 60 miles north of the Israeli border.
“It’s possible the drone was launched from the sea,” Afif said, adding that the targeted area was some two miles from the coast.
State media reported intense Israeli drone activity on Sunday in the wake of the incident.
Nasrallah said the attack represented “a significant violation of equations that had been in place since the 2006 war,” referring to the monthlong conflict with Israel that devastated large swaths of Beirut and Lebanon’s south, killed nearly 1,200 Lebanese civilians and ended in a stalemate.
He also referred to a spate of mysterious explosions now attributed to Israel against Iran-affiliated groups in Iraq, saying that being silent in the face of Sunday’s attack would lead to a repeat of the same scenario in Lebanon.
“We in Lebanon do not allow such a trajectory of this type and will do all we can to stop it,” he said.
Lebanon’s normally fractious politicians were united in denouncing the attack. Lebanese President Michel Aoun described the incident as a “blatant aggression on Lebanese sovereignty” and a part of a “continuing series of violations” as well as “additional proof of Israel’s aggressive intentions.”
“Lebanon … will take the appropriate measures after consulting with the concerned parties,” Aoun said in the statement.
Israeli drones and warplanes regularly breach Lebanese airspace, prompting Lebanon to complain to the United Nations, but with little effect. The country has a small air force comprising helicopters and turboprop light attack aircraft.
The drones, Hariri said in a statement Sunday, were “a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation towards more tension.”
Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group that first emerged during Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon in the 1980s, has developed into a dominant force in Lebanese politics as well as an armed group viewed by many as being more effective than the Lebanese army.
More recently, its cadres have bolstered forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Iran who since 2011 has fought an armed rebellion against his rule.
The incident came hours after Israel’s military said it had thwarted an imminent attack by Iran and its proxies — with airstrikes that targeted an area south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, near its airport.
The attack, said Israel Defense Forces spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, was to involve “killer drones,” which carry explosives and act as guided missiles.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted an unnamed military source who said that authorities had tracked multiple missiles approaching Damascus from the occupied Golan Heights and that air defense systems had downed “most of the Israeli aggressor missiles before they reached their targets.”
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition activist group that monitors developments in Syria, said two Hezbollah members as well as an Iranian militiaman were killed in the strike.
Pro-Hezbollah activists on social media uploaded pictures of what were said to be the dead Hezbollah operatives.
For years, Israel has targeted sites in Syria that it says are being used by Iran to transfer advanced weapons to its affiliated forces within range of Israel’s borders. In recent weeks, that campaign’s footprint has expanded to include Iraq, where Israel was accused of bombing an Iranian-controlled base near Baghdad, and now Lebanon.
“We will continue to take determined and responsible action against Iran and its proxies for the security of Israel,” tweeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday in a rare public acknowledgment of the attack on Syria.
“I reiterate: Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”
In a briefing for journalists, Israeli army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said that “Qassem Suleimani, the al-Quds commander, himself directed the [thwarted] attack and personally training Shiite militias preparing for it.”
Former Israeli national security advisor Yaakov Amidror, a retired military intelligence officer, said that “Israel is now in the middle of a long effort to stop the Iranians from building their independent war machine in Syria. They have one in Lebanon, controlled by Hezbollah, and they want to build an independent one in Syria which will be controlled by Iran directly.”
Amidror did not comment on the incident near Beirut except to note that “Hezbollah has many enemies.”
Times staff writer Bulos reported from Amman and special correspondent Tarnopolsky from Jerusalem. Staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.