Mofaz: Violators will pay for attacks

Lebanese PM tries to defuse border tensions; UN quiet on Hizbullah barrage.

hizbullah flag 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
hizbullah flag 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Hizbullah reported an Israeli airstrike in south Lebanon on Tuesday, but the IDF denied the reports, Israel Radio stated. The border was quiet Tuesday morning, but the high level of alert in the north continued after the IAF attacked the Hizbullah post from which mortars were fired at Israeli towns during the day, Monday. Army helicopters were circling the area as ground forces patrolled the northern border. Hizbullah launched a failed attempt to kidnap soldiers Monday in an assault on Mount Dov and the northern town of Rajar and a coordinated mortar and rocket barrage on northern Galilee towns and kibbutzim. A fierce Israeli response killed four infiltrators and struck at Hizbullah targets in south Lebanon, but at least 12 soldiers were wounded and a house severely damaged in Metulla by Hizbullah mortar fire. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz remarked that the attacks on Monday were the broadest since Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon over five years ago. Likewise, he said, Israel's responses were the harshest since then. He noted Tuesday that Hizbullah posts were hit that had never before been attacked, Israel Radio reported. Mofaz warned that if attacks like these continued, Israel would exact the price from the perpetrators. In his own effort to quiet the border following the Hizbullah attacks, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora spoke on Tuesday with Hizbullah leadership and American, French and Russian ambassadors to defuse area tensions. Due to a dispute over how to voice their condemnation, the UN Security Council failed to issue a statement condemning the Hizbullah attacks. The UNSC conflict centered around a US-Algerian quarrel over the wording of a statement drafted by France, in which Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace were condemned alongside the Hizbullah incursion, according to Israel Radio. The assault began Monday afternoon and lasted about six hours, during which residents were ordered to shelters. But by Monday night, a tense calm returned to the northern frontier and residents were allowed to return to their homes. Top security officials met late last night to reassess the situation following one of the most violent Hizbullah attacks on Israel since Israel pulled out of Lebanon five and a half years ago. Mofaz, speaking from his headquarters in Tel Aviv, said the Hizbullah attack on the northeastern border throughout the afternoon was a coordinated combination of gunfire, mortar fire and kidnap attempt. "Syrian and Iranian interests are behind this event. Their interest is to escalate the situation in the north to alleviate the pressure off Syria," Mofaz said. Mofaz said Syria wanted to divert the spotlight focused on President Bashar Assad's regime from its apparent involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. The defense establishment, he said, will meet to discuss the attack. "Our aim is to come up with the best solution to provide the residents of northern Israel with the best possible protection," he added. The attack began with a massive barrage directed against IDF posts on Mount Dov in the afternoon. It quickly spread westward. Shortly after the initial barrage, IDF troops prevented an attempt to infiltrate an outpost on Mount Dov, killing at least one gunman. An officer and soldier were seriously wounded in this apparently botched kidnapping attempt. An unspecified number of soldiers were also lightly wounded in the gun battle. The wounded were evacuated to Haifa's Rambam Hospital. In nearby Rajar, a village of Alawite Muslims located on the Israeli-Lebanese border, Hizbullah gunmen rode in on motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), Army Radio reported. They opened fire on a building housing the local council. IDF forces intercepted the gunmen and returned fire, killing three. As gun battles continued around Rajar, the mortar barrages moved westward, targeting Metulla and Kibbutzim Ma'ayan Baruch and Snir. Hizbullah later extended the fighting across the entire northern border, as mortars landed near the western towns of Nahariya and Shlomi. As a result of the shelling, residents of the north from the Mediterranean to Mount Hermon were ordered into bomb shelters Monday evening for the first time in years. A house in Metulla was directly hit by a Katyusha. While family members were in the house at the time, no injuries were reported. Extensive damage was caused to the building. IDF artillery returned fire alongside IAF air strikes from helicopters. IAF aircraft bombed a number of roads as well as a building used by Hizbullah as a headquarters in southern Lebanon. According to Lebanese security officials in south Lebanon, Israeli warplanes also fired missiles at suspected terrorist hideouts about 500 meters from the Lebanese-Israeli border. Witnesses in Lebanon told news agencies that they saw over 100 explosions in the area. Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim, speaking on Channel 1, reiterated Mofaz's analysis that Hizbullah's actions were aimed at releasing pressure from Syria. Analysts said it was an attempt by Syria to use Hizbullah to show the Americans that Damascus had cards too and could put all of northern Israel into bomb shelters and drag Israel into an international conflict with Syria. An Israeli retaliatory strike against Syria could serve Assad's purposes, as he would appear under attack. The US government condemned Hizbullah's actions while calling Israel not to escalate the situation. "We condemn the Hizbullah attacks conducted earlier today along the Blue Line," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, adding that the US had "made it very clear to the Lebanese Government that they need to control the situation in southern Lebanon." McCormack said that Hizbullah had deliberately initiated the latest provocation only one day before Lebanese Independence Day. Concerning Israel's actions in response to the attack, the spokesman said that "while we certainly recognize Israel's right to self-defense, we urge restraint in taking whatever actions they deem necessary in order to defend themselves so that you do not have an escalation of tensions in the region, in the area." The Foreign Ministry Monday night directed its representatives in Washington, the European capitals and the UN to lobby for unequivocal condemnations of Hizbullah's actions without tempering or balancing these statements - as is usually done - with a call for "Israeli restraint." "It is clear to everyone that this Hizbullah attack was not a reaction to anything Israel did, but rather a clear provocation born of the need by Damascus, Teheran and Hizbullah to remove international pressure," a Foreign Ministry official said after the ministry's directorate held a special meeting on the matter Monday evening in the ministry. Last month, Terje Roed-Larsen, the UN special envoy on implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, issued a report saying that both he and the council had said repeatedly that "the Sheba Farms area is not part of Lebanon. Therefore, any Lebanese 'resistance' to 'liberate' the area from continued Israeli occupation cannot be considered legitimate." In addition, Larsen said, "even if the Lebanese claim to the Sheba Farms area were legitimate, it would be the responsibility of the government of Lebanon only to address this claim in conformity with international law and relevant Security Council resolutions." For weeks now, the Israeli defense establishment has been on alert for possible Hizbullah escalation on the northern border. On Sunday, the IDF went on higher operational alert along the northern border after "irregular" actions by Hizbullah guerrillas. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon convened an urgent situation assessment with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and top IDF brass met on Sunday night to discuss the troubling Hizbullah behavior. The situation with Syria and Lebanon was also discussed, government sources said. Sgt.-Maj. Phillip Pasmanick, the security director of Kibbutz Ma'ayan Baruch, said that he felt that the IDF had acted responsibly, alerting the northern communities ten days ago to rumors of Hizbullah activity along the border. Soldiers stationed in communities such as Ma'ayan Baruch were ordered to avoid patrolling alone in response to concerns about abduction attempts. Pasmanick's commanders from the police and Border Police had all called and visited immediately following the mortar attacks, he said, and he praised the army, police and Border Police, saying that they were "all very active not only in defending against Katyusha fire and [these kinds] of scare tactics, but also going into the settlements and making sure that the citizens are protected and taken care of." Pasmanick, a 20-year veteran of the police force, said that this was the first time in years that residents were forced to enter bomb shelters. "We've enjoyed quiet since we left Lebanon, and in the meantime a new group of people moved into the kibbutz who aren't used to these attacks," he said. A large population of students at nearby Tel Hai College live on the kibbutz. "It's been quite disruptive for them," he said. "They're supposed to be able to sit down and study and go to school." In contrast, the children of the kibbutz, who became familiar with barrages in the years before Israeli forces left Lebanon, calmly entered a kibbutz bomb shelter, where they watched an Israeli stand-up comedian on DVD, leaving once the movie ended. Still, Pasmanick was confident that the situation in the north would not affect daily life too much. Even tourism - a prime economic asset for the northern border area - would not suffer for long from the attack, he said. "Israelis are aware of this lifestyle. If a rocket falls on a Thursday, nobody will come on the weekend, but the following week, they'll be back." "I'm sure that if you work out all the statistics, you'll see that more people were killed by terror in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or Netanya than across the entire north throughout all of the years of conflict," Pasmanick said. "With all this going on, we're still in better shape and I wouldn't leave the north. I would rather live in Israel with the terrorists than in New York with the drive-bys. Here you can protect yourself; you have a fighting chance." Nathan Guttman, Herb Keinon and Rebecca Stoil contributed to this report.