By LAURIE KELLMAN and ZEINA KARAM
BEIRUT (AP) — The militant Hezbollah group fired a barrage of rockets toward Israel on Friday, and Israel hit back with artillery in a significant escalation between the two sides.
It was the third day of attacks along the volatile border with Lebanon, a major Middle East flashpoint where tensions between Israel and Iran, which backs Hezbollah, occasionally play out. But comments by Israeli officials and Hezbollah’s actions suggested the two were seeking to avoid a major conflict at this time.
Israel said it fired back after 19 rockets were launched from Lebanon, and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett swiftly convened a meeting with the country’s top defense officials. No casualties were reported.
“We do not wish to escalate to a full war, yet of course we are very prepared for that,” said Lt. Col. Amnon Shefler, spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces.
Israel has long considered Hezbollah, which is based in Lebanon, its most serious and immediate military threat. Friday’s exchanges came a day after Israel’s defense minister warned that his country is prepared to strike Iran following a fatal drone strike on a oil tanker at sea that his country blamed on Tehran.
The tensions come at a politically sensitive time in Israel, where a new eight-party governing coalition is already trying to keep the peace on another border under a fragile cease-fire that ended an 11-day war with Hamas’ militant rulers in Gaza.
Sirens blared across the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee near the Lebanon border Friday morning. Hezbollah said in a statement that it hit “open fields” in the disputed Shebaa farms area.
The group said it fired 10 rockets, calling it retaliation for Israeli airstrikes the day before. Israel said those strikes were in response to rocket fire from southern Lebanon in recent days that was not claimed by any group.
Shebaa Farms is an enclave where the borders of Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet. Israel says it is part of the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967. Lebanon and Syria say Shebaa Farms belong to Lebanon, while the United Nations says the area is part of Syria.
“This is a very serious situation and we urge all parties to cease fire,” the force known as UNIFIL said. Force commander, Gen. Stefano Del Col, said the force was coordinating with the Lebanese army to strengthen security measures in the area.
Hezbollah’s decision to strike open fields in a disputed area rather than Israel proper, appeared calibrated to limit any response.
Shefler, the Israeli military spokesman, told reporters Friday that three of the 19 rockets fired fell within Lebanese territory. Ten were intercepted by the defense system known as the Iron Dome.
Israel estimates Hezbollah possesses over 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in the country. In recent years, Israel also has expressed concerns that the group is trying to import or develop an arsenal of precision-guided missiles.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Lebanese border villages where it accuses Hezbollah of hiding rockets. An Israeli security official said Friday the military was carrying out airstrikes unlike any in years and was planning for more options. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military policy.
The attack sparked tensions between locals and Hezbollah. Videos on social media after the rocket attack showed two vehicles, including a mobile rocket launcher, being stopped by residents of Shwaya village. The windshield of one vehicle was smashed.
Some of the villagers could be heard saying: “Hezbollah is firing rockets from between homes so that Israel hits us back.”
The Lebanese army said it arrested four people who were involved in the rocket-firing and confiscated the rocket launcher. It said Lebanese troops and U.N. peacekeepers are taking all the measures to restore calm.
Hezbollah issued a statement saying that the rockets were fired from remote areas, adding that the fighters were stopped in Shwaya on their way back.
“We lived a similar period in the 1970s, when Palestinian fighters were carrying out guerrilla attacks against Israel. We are now to the same status and this is causing tension,” said Ajaj Mousa, a resident of nearby Kfarchouba.
The escalation also comes at a sensitive time in Lebanon, which is mired in multiple crises including a devastating economic and financial meltdown and political deadlock that has left the country without a functional government for a full year.