Hezbollah militants in Lebanon fired anti-tank missiles Wednesday at a pair of Israeli army vehicles on the edge of the Israeli-held Golan Heights, killing two soldiers in retaliation for an Israeli strike in Syria that killed six Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian general.
The ambush by the Iranian-backed guerrilla group triggered Israeli artillery and airstrikes in Lebanon that killed a Spanish member of a United Nations peacekeeping force. The exchange of fire, the deadliest across the Lebanese frontier since a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, raised concerns of a possible slide toward wider conflict.
“Whoever is behind today’s attack will pay the full price,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned before a meeting with security chiefs. However, analysts said that neither Israel nor Hezbollah wanted to be drawn into a full-blown war.
A retaliatory attack by Hezbollah had been widely expected after the group vowed to respond to the killing of its men on Jan. 18, when Israeli aircraft targeted a convoy of Hezbollah vehicles in Syria.
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On Wednesday morning, a group of Israeli soldiers on an inspection tour of the frontier between the Golan Heights and Lebanon were approaching the border village of Ghajar when their vehicles were hit by five Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an army spokesman.
An officer and a soldier were killed, and seven other servicemen were wounded, the army said.
Video images from the scene showed the mangled, burning wreckage of the two vehicles. Hezbollah said the assault had been carried out by “the Quneitra martyrs group,” alluding to the Israeli strike on the Hezbollah convoy near the town of Quneitra.
The area of Wednesday’s attack is near a disputed border zone known as Shebaa Farms, which Hezbollah claims as part of Lebanon, though it was under Syrian control before Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israeli forces responded to the lethal ambush with artillery and airstrikes on what the army described as “Hezbollah operational positions” in Lebanon. A Spanish peacekeeper with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was killed, a spokesman for the force said.
Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo told reporters later that he had received a phone call from Israel’s ambassador to Spain, offering condolences.
Lebanese officials said the Israeli shelling was directed at the border villages of Majidiyeh, Abbasiyeh and Kafr Chouba.
Hezbollah responded with mortar rounds that landed near Israeli army positions on Mount Dov and Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, the army said, and an adjacent ski resort was evacuated. Roads nearby were closed to civilian traffic.
Analysts said that despite the serious flare-up, neither Hezbollah nor Israel had an interest in escalating their exchange into a full-scale war. Hezbollah is wary of provoking a conflict that would cause extensive damage in Lebanon, and Netanyahu, who is in an election campaign, would have little to gain from a potentially costly conflagration at this time, commentators said.
Amos Harel, military correspondent for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote that Hezbollah had responded in kind to the Israeli strike on its convoy with an assault that was “calculated and limited.” Israel, for its part, appeared to be seeking “containment, not escalation.”
The hostilities died down by afternoon, though tensions remained high on both the Lebanese border and the frontier between the Israeli-held Golan Heights and Syria.
Early Wednesday, Israel launched airstrikes on what the army said were Syrian artillery positions after two rockets fired from Syria hit the Israeli-held Golan on Tuesday.
Israel Ziv, a reserve general and former army chief of operations, told reporters that the situation was “flammable,” but “Israel understands that it needs to contain it.”