TEL AVIV — Israel drew the Lebanese Hezbollah militia into what some military officials called an ambush this week, as a rocket attack on an Israeli position led to day-long exchanges of fire, at the end of which Hezbollah’s elaborate military installations along the Israeli-Lebanese border lay in ruins. It was the heaviest cross-border fighting since Israel withdrew its troops from south Lebanon in May 2000.
For years, senior Israeli officials have described the head of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as their most sophisticated and calculating foe. In the six years since Israel withdrew, the Shi’ite militia has turned the border into a heavily armed zone, with thousands of missiles facing Israel. Hezbollah, a close ally of Iran, is also believed to play a lead role in arming and directing Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank. This week, Nasrallah was described by Israeli officials as humiliated and licking his wounds.
The round began last Friday, May 26, with the assassination of a Hezbollah ally, Mahmoud Majdoub, leader of Lebanese Islamic Jihad. Although Israel denied responsibility, rockets were fired Sunday morning deep into Israeli territory, landing on an air base near Safed. One soldier was wounded. Officials said that the hits were deeper inside Israel than any Lebanese fire had reached before.
Israel responded with air attacks on Lebanese bases of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Hezbollah replied with a barrage of rockets and mortars. Israel then began bombing along the length of the border.
The shootout ended when the United Nations called for a cease-fire in the early evening. Two Lebanese fighters were dead, one from the Popular Front-General Command fighter and one from Hezbollah.
Israel’s northern division commander, Gal Hirsch, told The Associated Press that Israel had been expecting a Hezbollah attack and had a contingency plan ready. “We were waiting for them for weeks,” Hirsch said. “Our main effort was to destroy the frontline that Hezbollah has built in the last six years.”
The Hezbollah border positions were a source of major concern to Israel, allowing the militia to monitor Israeli activities up close, and giving it the infrastructure needed to carry out attacks quickly. However, the price for this proximity became clear this week. When a guerrilla organization builds permanent positions, it provides a range of easy targets.
Last Sunday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Fawzi Sallukh accused Israel of “warlike aggression.” But a leading Lebanese opposition figure, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, blamed Iran and Syria for provoking the exchange.
If Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, was the biggest loser in the exchange, the biggest winner was Israel’s new defense minister, Labor Party leader Amir Peretz, who had his first chance to show his mettle.
In a separate operation, Peretz authorized an army announcement Tuesday that Israeli ground troops had entered Gaza to attack terrorist cells planning Qassam rocket attacks against Israel, in the broadest operation since Israel left Gaza last summer. Three members of Islamic Jihad were killed as they were preparing to launch rockets against Ashkelon, Israeli military spokesmen said. Two others were killed by Israeli helicopter missile fire after the ground raid.
An army said that the Special Forces raids had been going on for about two months, but were disclosed now because Tuesday’s operation was too large to hide. Spokesmen said that the raids were effective, in part because close-quarters operations allowed troops to pinpoint terrorist cells without putting civilians at risk. The army said that attacks have declined by 40% since late March.
International reaction was relatively muted. However, the Palestinian Authority president slammed the raids, calling them an “unjustified escalation that will lead the region into further deterioration and instability.”