Less than a week after a cease-fire went into effect, soldiers from the Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) raided Baalbek deep in Lebanon overnight Friday and, according to the IDF, thwarted the transfer of weapons from Syria to Hizbullah.
An IDF officer, Lt.-Col. Emanuel Morano, 35, from Telamim was killed and two others were wounded in the raid, one seriously and one lightly. Three Hizbullah gunmen were reportedly killed, although the terrorist organization denied suffering any losses.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Saturday night that the operation in Baalbek had not violated the UN-brokered cease-fire that went into effect on Monday.
"This was an operation that was meant to prevent the rearming of Hizbullah," Peretz said.
Baalbek is said to be the birthplace of the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah and is located in the eastern Bekaa Valley some 100 kilometers north of the Israeli border.
Earlier in the month, the Sayeret Matkal and Shaldag (the air force's elite commando unit) raided the area and took five captives after killing more than 15 gunmen. A high-ranking IDF officer said last week that throughout the previous month of warfare, commandos had carried out dozens of covert operations inside Lebanon.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Fuad Saniora accused Israel of violating the cease-fire and said he would take up the issue with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
"The landing carried out by the Israeli occupation forces today in the Bekaa was a flagrant violation of the cessation of hostilities announced by the Security Council," Saniora said in a statement. He added that he had complained to a UN delegation that visited him Saturday.
The IDF said the commandos entered Lebanon "to prevent and interfere with terror activity against Israel, especially the smuggling of arms from Iran and Syria to Hizbullah."
The army said the force had completed its mission successfully, and that such operations would be carried out until a multinational force was in place to prevent Hizbullah's rearmament.
According to Lebanese reports, two IAF helicopters dropped two humvees near the village of Boudai, some 15 kilometers west of Baalbek, close to 100 km inside Lebanon. According to the reports, IAF aircraft provided cover and even fired missiles at a Hizbullah headquarters nearby.
Clashes ensued between the IDF troops and Hizbullah guerrillas. The helicopters returned to the area and evacuated the vehicles and the troops.
Lebanese media said Sheikh Muhammad Yazbeck, a senior Hizbullah official in the Bekaa Valley and a member of the group's Shura council, may have been the target. Yazbeck is a native of Boudai.
Other Arab reports claimed that the operation was connected to the two abducted IDF soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.
The IDF said it was had been aware that the operation was risky and could spark a new round of violence, including the possible renewal of Katyusha rocket attacks on northern Israel. Despite the risk, the IDF decided to go ahead with the operation, which it said could not have been carried out without the use of ground forces.
A senior officer said last week that the IDF was allowed to bomb weapons convoys crossing into Lebanon from Syria on their way to Hizbullah.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr threatened to halt deployment of Lebanese troops in the country's south if the United Nations did not intervene against Israel.
After an evening meeting with UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen, Murr said the UN official was traveling to Israel and would discuss the matter with officials there. "We have put the matter forward in a serious manner and the UN delegation was understanding of the seriousness of the situation," he told reporters. "We are awaiting an answer."
"If there are no clear answers forthcoming on this issue, I might be forced to recommend to the cabinet early next week the halt of the army deployment in the south," he said.
Before departing for Israel, Roed-Larsen said that if the report about the Israeli commando raid in Baalbek were true, the incident would be "a clear violation" of the UN-imposed cease-fire agreement.
"We've only received information through the media about this incident and had no independent means of verifying... what has happened. But if what has been reported is correct, it is of course a clear violation of the cease-fire. And it is also unhelpful in a very complex and very fragile situation," he told the the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation Saturday night.