A picture shows a partial view of the barrier along the border with Lebanon from the northern Israeli town of Metula on Tuesday. Agence France-Presse
Hizbollah will respond with a “surprise” strike against Israel after drones crashed in Lebanon, but a new war remains unlikely, the Iran-backed movement said, amid heightened fears of a full-scale confrontation between the longtime adversaries.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the two drones that crashed at the weekend in the Hizbollah-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut. One of them exploded, causing some damage to Hizbollah’s media centre in the district, but nobody was hurt.
“I rule out that the atmosphere is one of war, it is one of a response to an attack,” Hizbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem said in a TV interview on Tuesday night.
“Everything will be decided at its time.” Lebanon’s i is planning a “calculated strike” but seeks to avoid a new war with Israel, two sources allied to the group, which fought a deadly month-long war with Israel in 2006, told Reuters earlier on Tuesday.
A regional security official said the drone incident was “a strike that dealt a blow to Hizbollah’s capabilities in the realm of precision-missile manufacturing.” “Israel’s message to Hizbollah here, writ large, was: Keep manufacturing, and we will keep hitting you.” Asked what would happen if Hizbollah escalates after responding, the official said: “I imagine that Israel would then step up its strikes and wipe out this capability altogether. The details of these sites are known.
“The ball would now appear to be in Hizbollah’s court.” Despite signs that Israel and Hizbollah do not want a new full-scale conflict, tensions over the drones and an air raid in Syria that Israel says thwarted an Iranian attack have emerged at a sensitive time in the Middle East.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to appear decisive ahead of elections in three weeks. Iran and the United States are at odds over a 2015 nuclear deal. Militias in Iraq, many of whom are backed by Iran, blame recent blasts at their weapons depots on the United States and Israel.
In a speech on Sunday, Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah described the drone crashes as the first Israeli attack in Lebanon since the 2006 war.
Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Nasrallah should “calm down,” also issuing warnings to Lebanon and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Precise details about where the drones were fired from have yet to emerge. In response to questions about the origin or target of the drones, Qassem did not give details in the interview with Russia’s RT Arabic channel.
He added that Hizbollah, which says the drones were rigged with explosives, saw it as an attack that it must respond to, so that Israel does not upset the status quo and set its own terms.
“We want the strike to be a surprise...and so there is no interest in diving into the details,” he said. “The coming days will reveal this.” In his speeches over the past year, Nasrallah has often said an all-out war with Israel was unlikely.
The two last fought a war in July 2006, after Hizbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Nearly 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, died in the July war and 158 people died in Israel, mostly soldiers.
Regional sources say Israel and Hizbollah have since formed an unwritten understanding that while they can exchange fire within Syria, they must avoid attacks within Lebanon or Israel lest that escalates to war.
The tensions have sapped confidence in Lebanon’s economy, already suffering one of the world’s heaviest public debt burdens and low growth.
The cost of insuring Lebanese sovereign debt against default hit a fresh record high and the country’s dollar-denominated bonds came under pressure again on Wednesday.
Israeli air strikes killed two Lebanese Hizbollah fighters at the weekend in Syria, where Hizbollah and Iran provide critical military help to Damascus.
Israel, which sees the heavily armed Hizbollah as the biggest threat across its border, has also grown alarmed by the rising influence of its foe Iran in Syria.
Israeli officials say the air force has mounted hundreds of strikes against what it deems Iranian targets and Hizbollah arms transfers inside Syria.
Iran also has wide sway in Iraq through militia allies and is aligned with the Houthi movement in Yemen, which is at war with a Saudi-led coalition.