By Patrick Kingsley
Militants in southern Lebanon fired rockets into Israel on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, prompting the Israeli army to retaliate first with artillery fire and later with airstrikes in a new flare-up after days of tension across the region.
No faction claimed immediate responsibility for the rocket fire, but similar attacks in May and July were attributed to Palestinian militants based in Lebanon. No injuries were reported on either side.
The skirmish was a reminder of the hostility along the border, where the Israeli military has been locked for years in a standoff with Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese Shiite military and political faction that dominates southern Lebanon. Hezbollah does not recognize Israeli sovereignty, and it is considered a terrorist group by dozens of countries, including Israel and the United States.
Early on Thursday morning, the Israeli military said its aircraft struck what it described as rocket launch sites in south Lebanon, Reuters reported.
Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said that Israeli warplanes had carried out two raids in the outskirts of the Lebanese town of Mahmudiya.
Tensions between Israel and Iran-linked groups are running higher than usual because of expectations that Israel may soon retaliate for an attack last week on an Israeli-linked merchant ship in the Indian Ocean. Israel blamed that attack on Iran.
It was the latest in a years-old shadow war between Israel and Iran and its proxies that has involved regular tit-for-tat attacks that usually attract little international attention. But the unusual nature of last week’s episode — a drone attack on a civilian ship — has prompted fears that Israel may respond forcefully, either by targeting Iran itself or its proxies like Hezbollah.
Tensions rose even further on Tuesday, when an Emirati merchant ship was briefly boarded by Iranian gunmen off the coast of the United Arab Emirates, according to recordings of the crew obtained by The Associated Press. The gunmen were believed to be Iranian commandos, according to a senior Western official, who requested anonymity in order to speak more freely about the contents of intelligence reports.
Iran has denied involvement in either event.
Israel is trying to use these recent events to convince American and European allies that it is fruitless to continue nuclear negotiations with the Iranian government. A U.S.-led alliance is attempting to persuade Iran to recommit to a 2015 agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, in which it pledged to curb its nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
But Israeli officials consider that deal ineffective and contend that its allies should force Iran to end its nuclear ambitions and military activities by its proxies around the region through increased economic sanctions and military action.
In a speech to soldiers stationed near the Lebanese border on Tuesday, Israel’s prime minister, Naftali Bennett, said: “To sit tranquilly in Tehran and to set the entire Middle East on fire from there — that’s over. We are acting to enlist the world, but at the same time we also know how to act alone. Iran knows the price that we exact when someone threatens our security.”
Iran is competing for regional influence with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — both through direct attacks and support for militias and governments in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.
In a speech on Wednesday, Israel’s defense minister, Benny Gantz, said: “Iran has violated all of the guidelines set in the JCPOA and is only around 10 weeks away from acquiring weapons-grade materials necessary for a nuclear weapon. Now is the time for deeds — words are not enough. It is time for diplomatic, economic and even military deeds — otherwise the attacks will continue.”
There is no international consensus on exactly how much time Iran still needs to develop a nuclear weapon. Estimates range from several months to a few years.
Israel is believed to have developed nuclear weapons in the 1960s, though the government has never confirmed it.
The dynamic on the Israeli-Lebanese border is considered especially delicate because of the deep economic turmoil in Lebanon that has destabilized the country. Wednesday’s skirmish coincided with commemorations in Lebanon of the anniversary of an explosion in the port of Beirut last year that devastated much of the city and traumatized many of its residents. It was blamed partly on government incompetence and negligence.
Israel occupied parts of southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, trying to prevent Palestinian militants from maintaining a foothold there. War broke out again in 2006, principally with Hezbollah, leading to another brief Israeli ground invasion.