JERUSALEM Israel will hold Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and Lebanon itself responsible for any attempt to assassinate Israelis abroad, and will retaliate, Israel's deputy foreign minister said Sunday.
Hezbollah blamed Israel for the Feb 12, 2008 killing of its military mastermind, Imad Moughniyeh, in Syria and vowed revenge. Israel has since reported failed bids by Hezbollah agents to target its citizens in Africa and Central Asia.
An Egyptian newspaper Saturday reported the capture of several men linked to al Qaeda -- an exclusively Sunni Muslim group -- intent on assassinating Israel's ambassador to Cairo.
But Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said the alleged plot was "certainly" the work of Iranian-backed, Shi'ite Hezbollah.
"And I have one message here: If, God forbid, one hair falls off the head of any Israeli representative abroad, or of even an Israeli who is not an official representative, tourists, etc., we will consider Hezbollah responsible," he told Israel Radio.
"The outcome, for Hezbollah, will, I think, be of the utmost gravity," Ayalon said. "For Lebanon too."
"It is important ... to relay this warning to Lebanon, which is responsible for Hezbollah -- that they will suffer the consequences if they carry out assassinations of Israelis."
Egypt's independent daily Al Masry Al Youm reported that the al Qaeda-linked men had been arrested and confessed to monitoring the Israeli embassy and ambassador's house with a view to killing him, but had been foiled by tight security.
Egyptian officials could not immediately be reached for comment and the report could not be independently confirmed.
Hezbollah had no comment on Ayalon's remarks.
Asked how he could assert that it was Hezbollah who were behind the plot rather than al Qaeda, Ayalon told Israel Radio:
"I don't want to get into the intelligence or operational issues here, but certainly there is both an ideological connection and a professional connection of sorts here."
Al Qaeda, which follows Osama bin Laden's strict interpretation of Sunni militant Islam, considers Shi'ites heretics. The group is widely blamed for deadly attacks against Shi'ites in Iraq and it has repeatedly criticized Hezbollah. Hezbollah in turn regularly condemns al Qaeda for its attacks against Iraqis.
Egypt, one of two Arab countries to have made peace with the Jewish state, sent shockwaves across the Middle East in April by accusing Hezbollah of planning attacks against Israeli targets on Egyptian soil.
Hezbollah denied that charge, saying only that it had run agents in the Egyptian Sinai to provide arms and other support to Palestinians in the neighboring Gaza Strip.
Israel drove Hezbollah from its southern Lebanon strongholds in a 2006 war but has since complained that the militia has been secretly regrouping, despite a beefed-up U.N. peacekeeper force.
Hezbollah has also boosted its political base in Beirut, and some analysts believe any threat it could pose to Israel would be as a retaliatory arm of Iran, should that country's nuclear facilities come under pre-emptive Israeli strikes.
(Additional reporting by Aziz Kaissouni in Cairo and Nadim Ladki in Beirut; Editing by Patrick Graham)