Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned Tuesday that Hizbullah would pay a heavy price if it continued attempts to launch attacks.
The defense minister's statements came a day after Hizbullah gunmen attempted to abduct soldiers deployed in Ghajar and an IDF post on the northeastern side of Mount Dov on Monday afternoon under cover of heavy barrages of mortar shells and gunfire in what appeared to be a well-coordinated, large-scale attack.
Eleven soldiers and civilians were wounded, and at least four of the gunmen were killed. IDF officers estimate that at least 25 heavily-armed Hizbullah gunmen participated in the attack on Ghajar and those that survived fled back to Lebanese territory.
Israel's priority is to safeguard its civilians, said Mofaz, and he warned that in the event of additional attacks Israel "will know how to exact the price from the terrorists and those who send them."
On Tuesday a tense calm prevailed along the northern border and security forces continued to maintain a high state of alert. Civilians left the safety of shelters and security rooms and attempted to resume their daily routine.
Hours after the thwarted abduction attempts, exchanges of gunfire and artillery fire continued in response to the rocket and mortar shell attacks, sending residents of northern border communities from Metulla, Kiryat Shmona and the Galilee panhandle to shelters overnight.
It was considered to be the largest Hizbullah attack since the abduction of three IDF soldiers at Mount Dov in October 2000, and one of the most daring operations launched by the terrorists since the army's withdrawal from southern Lebanon five-and-a-half years ago.
In response to Monday's attack, air force planes shelled seven Hizbullah positions, infrastructure and intelligence posts and communication headquarters located deep in southern Lebanon. An IDF engineering unit deployed bulldozers on the Lebanese side of Ghajar to demolish a Hizbullah position located 20 meters from the village. When the task was completed, the unit pulled back to Israeli territory.
"We have no intention of violating the agreement, but if [Hizbullah] crosses into the area under our control they will be attacked," an IDF officer said.
Mofaz rejected criticism claiming the army's response was too mild. "It was a large-spread and wide-scale offensive," Mofaz told reporters, adding, "We don't know how many casualties Hizbullah terrorists incurred, but we struck targets - infrastructure, communication posts and the intelligence command headquarters."
Mofaz noted that the air force targeted locations that were never hit since the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon. He warned that if the Hizbullah attacks continue "the IDF will know how to respond while providing security for residents living near the northern border."
The army's successful response also prevented Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah from delivering a victory speech he had planned for Tuesday as Lebanon celebrated its independence, where he intended to praise the organization's successful operation, Mofaz said.
On Tuesday, Hizbullah's Al Manar satellite television station published film footage of the attack on the IDF positions.
Security forces displayed the heavy array of weapons carried by the four terrorists killed by paratrooper Crpl. David Markowitz at Ghajar on Monday. The weapons included rifles, sub machine guns, rocket propelled grenades, ammunition clips and grenades. Also recovered were communications equipment as well as helmets, Hizbullah flags and motorcycles the terrorists had intended to use after abducting soldiers.
Mofaz and the top IDF echelon praised Markowitz's skill and courage.
The Hizbullah attack is an attempt to divert attention from the intense pressure currently focused on Syria and Iran, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen Dan Halutz told reporters. Hizbullah, he said, paid a heavy price for the attack.
Halutz described the request submitted by the Lebanese government via Unifil to Israel demanding a halt to the gunfire as a "refreshing change" that indicates that the Lebanese government is finally taking responsibility. He predicted, however, that Monday's Hizbullah attack would not be the last.
OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Udi Adam said the aim of the attack was to abduct soldiers deployed in Ghajar. He described the attack as beginning with barrages of mortar shells and rockets fired at IDF positions on Mount Dov and in Ghajar. It then spread along the entire northern border sector up until Rosh Hanikra. Hizbullah used elements of their entire arsenal in the attack, including mortar shells, Katyushas, sniper fire and anti-tank fire, he told reporters.
Paratrooper and Golani units together with tanks, artillery units and the air force succeeded in thwarting the attempts, he said. "We know with certainty that at least four of the terrorists were killed and possibly even more," he said.
Col. Gal Hirsch of the Galilee Formation Division said paratroopers deployed in Ghajar had prepared an ambush for the Hizbullah terrorists. Having received intelligence information of attempts by Hizbullah to launch attacks and abduct soldiers, he said, troops were prepared. When the soldiers spotted the terrorists entering the Israeli side of Ghajar they responded in a "professional and rapid manner, destroying the terrorists who were in the forefront," he said.
After meeting with the top IDF brass to receive updates and assess the situation, Mofaz visited Kiryat Shmona and Metulla to learn up front of the emergency preparations implemented to safeguard civilians. Mofaz instructed teams of the Homefront Command to take the necessary measures to boost up the shelters and other equipment used in times of emergency and also promised to channel additional ministry funds to tighten security in the area.
A Channel 10 report criticized the failure of the Northern Command to get a grip on the situation following Monday's attack, noting that it took more than four hours until commanders had a clear insight into what had occurred. "Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz delayed his press conference until he received a clear picture of what had happened and whether a soldier was killed, and that was four hours after the attack," television military reporter Alon Ben-David said.
The television report also criticized the failure of the IDF to comment on the damage caused by the Hizbullah onslaught, noting that film footage broadcasted on Al-Manar clearly showed a number of Merkava tanks burning. The report admonished the army for failing to provide such details and instead chose to focus on the successful outcome of the IDF response.
Maj.-Gen. (Res.) Amos Gilad deemed that Israel's response was fitting, and, like Mofaz, rejected suggestions that it was inadequate and failed to serve as a deterrence even though Hizbullah had crossed all the red lines. Gilad declared that had Israel responded more harshly it would have played into Syria's hands. "It is exactly what they would have wanted to divert the world's attention," he said. Gilad warned that had Hizbullah succeeded in abducting soldiers, Israel's response would have been a lot harsher. "Had they abducted a soldier or soldiers, it would have changed the balance of our strategy," he said.
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