BEIRUT (Reuters) - An exchange of rocket fire hit the Lebanese-Israeli border Tuesday in the first such incident since 2009, coming at a time of heightened regional tensions over Syria and Iran’s nuclear program.
UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, said at least one rocket was fired at northern Israel, prompting the Israeli army to return fire. The Lebanese army said Israel launched four rockets in return.
Two buildings in Israel’s western Galilee area were damaged, Israeli media said, but there were no reports of casualties. Residents said they heard two explosions and that houses shook.
The Lebanese army said it had deployed extra troops and patrols in the Rmeish area in Lebanon, just 2km (1 mile) from the border, where a rocket launcher was found. UNIFIL said it was inspecting both sides of the border.
A security analyst and former UNIFIL member Timur Goksel said the attack did not bear characteristics of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Shi‘ite guerrilla army and political movement that fought a 34-day border war with Israel in 2006.
But he said the attack was unusual, first because it was in a Christian village not usually a site of rocket launchings, and second because the weapon used was a longer range Grad missile that had better aim compared to the older, shorter rockets which are fired randomly.
“This looks more serious. The type of rocket and apparent targeting of settlements suggests they were not noisemakers, they actually hit something and didn’t mind causing casualties. This one could have caused huge mayhem,” he said.
The Israeli-Lebanese border has been largely quiet in recent years, though some have worried about a possible spillover of tension from a popular revolt in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, and from a stiffening of Western sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
Syria, seen as the faultline for the region’s geopolitical balance and an ally of Hezbollah, has launched a crackdown to try to quell unrest. The U.N says some 3,500 people have died since March.
UNIFIL called for restraint. “This is a serious incident in violation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701 and is clearly directed at undermining stability in the area,” it said in a statement.
Israel said it was trying to establish who fired the rockets from Lebanon, but that it held the Lebanese government responsible and would deliver a complaint.
“The Lebanese government is responsible for everything that happens in Lebanon and everything that exits from its border,” Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said.
The Lebanese army said a rocket launcher was found in the Rmeish area of south Lebanon.
In Lebanon, security sources said the rocket fire hit Israel from an area between the villages of Aita Shaab and Rmeish. They said Israel fired four artillery shells in response, but they landed in fields and caused no damage.
An Israeli military spokesman said the rockets were the first fired since 2009 across the border.
“Several rockets hit western Galilee. The Israeli army considers the incident severe and is targeting the origins of fire,” said a statement from the military spokesman’s office.
Israel’s Ynet news website said residents saw plumes of smoke where the rockets struck.