A cautious calm has returned to the southern Lebanese border amid international calls for restraint after Hezbollah and Israel exchanged fire following a week of tensions.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Sunday held phone conversations with the top United States and French diplomats, urging them to “intervene” to prevent the situation from escalating into a full-fledged war, his office said.
In an anticipated response to an Israeli air raid last week that killed two of its fighters in Syria, as well as a suspected Israeli drone attack on the group’s stronghold in southern Beirut, Hezbollah on Sunday fired a number of anti-tank missiles at an Israeli army base and vehicles near the border.
The missiles hit several targets in Israel’s border town of Avivim, the Israeli army said, adding it responded by shelling 100 targets inside Lebanon.
According to Hezbollah, the missiles launched from Lebanon destroyed a tank, killing and wounding those inside it. Israel, however, said the attack did not lead to any casualties on its side.
In a statement sent to Al Jazeera, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) mission, which is present in the border region between the two countries, called both sides to exercise restraint.
“The head of mission is in close contact with the parties, urging maximum restraint and asking to seize any activities that are endangering the cessation of hostilities,” UNIFIL said.
The latest cross-border escalation comes after a week of rising tensions and less than three weeks ahead of Israel’s parliamentary elections which are scheduled to be held on September 17.
Cross-border fire halts
There was no fighting overnight, while Israeli shelling following the missile attack had died down on Monday, with the Israeli military saying the latest round of fighting with Hezbollah appeared to be over.
In Lebanon’s Maroun el-Ras, residents inspected their tobacco and olive fields early Monday, some of which were burned by the Israeli fire.
Shortly before noon, a foot patrol of UN peacekeepers was seen near the border fence, searching the sides of a road with metal detectors apparently to make sure there are no unexploded shells.
A UN helicopter flew overhead while an armored personnel carrier followed the peacekeepers.
Merchant Ahmad Alawiyeh, 45, was in the village with his son and daughter standing in an area overlooking his plot of land close to the fence. He didn’t sustain much damage as he hadn’t planted tobacco or olive trees like the two adjacent, burnt plots.
“This is a victory and pride for us,” he told The Associated Press, referring to Hezbollah’s attack on Israel. Alawiyeh has been living between his hometown and Beirut since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.
On the Israeli side of the border, civilian cars were seen from a distance driving through a village.
Maroun el-Ras witnessed some of the most intense battles between Israeli troops and Hezbollah fighters during the 34-day war they fought in 2006.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from northern Israel, said that although the situation had calmed down, the possibility of further escalation still existed.
“On both sides, the core issues remain in play,” he said.
“Lebanon says that Israel is routinely going through its airspace to launch attacks into Syria. On the Israeli side, there is expanding Iranian operation inside Lebanon and that Iran and Hezbollah are working to create existing missiles into weaponry,” Fawcett added.
“So this particular conflagration seems to have now died down but there is always the possibility and even the likelihood of more down the line,” he added.
Israel considers Hezbollah, which also operates in Syria, as the most potent military threat on its border.
Its military estimates that the Iran-backed movement has a vast arsenal of some 130,000 rockets and missiles, but most are believed to be relatively primitive unguided projectiles.
Following Sunday’s cross-border fire, White House Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt condemned the attacks into Israel, adding that the US “stands with Israel and fully supports its right to defend itself”.
Missiles fired from Lebanon into Israel. Iran has proxies in Lebanon & Gaza that harm Israel, undermine chances for peace & threaten a better future for Palestinians. The US stands w/ Israel & fully supports its right to defend itself against all attacks.
— Jason D. Greenblatt (@jdgreenblatt45) September 1, 2019
Considered one of the most powerful groups in Lebanon, the Tehran-backed Hezbollah has three ministers in government and is represented in the Lebanese parliament. It has a strongly-armed wing, with its forces fighting in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.
Bahrain criticises Lebanon
Condemning the escalation, Bahrain hinted on Sunday that Beirut stood by “as a spectator” as the two parties exchanged fire along the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Bahrain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said in a tweet that the “aggression of one State against another is prohibited by international law.”
“[For a state] to stand by as spectator as a battle escalates along its borders and endangers its people is major complacency in the responsibility of that state,” he added, without directly naming Lebanon.
Al-Khalifa followed his tweet with another, quoting the head of the Lebanese Forces Party Samir Geagea who warned that it was “unacceptable to put Lebanon in front of the possibility of a devastating war” amid regional tensions.
“What remains of a state status and a powerful era, if the strategic decision in the hands of parties outside the state institutions,” added Geagea.
Bahrain also issued a statement on Sunday, calling on its citizens in Lebanon to leave the Mediterranean country “promptly”.
“The latest security developments in the area … require taking all the necessary measures to ensure safety.
“The Ministry reiterates its previous statements which warn against traveling to the Lebanese Republic in order to protect citizens from all dangers and ensure their safety,” the statement added.
Bahrain has previously issued similar statements calling on its citizens not to travel to Lebanon, but recent incidents prompted an additional warning.