Israeli strikes hit Lebanon's Baalbek for first time since start of Gaza war

Israeli army said it was targeting a Hezbollah air defence unit after militant group shot down drone

An Israeli jet flies over Lebanon during fighting between the Israeli military and Hezbollah. AFP
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Israel carried out air strikes near the city of Baalbek in north-eastern Lebanon on Monday in the deepest attacks inside the country since the Gaza war began on October 7.

The Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said the strikes killed two of its fighters, Hassan Ali Younes and Ahmad Mohammad Sindiyan, and injured three others.

A security source told The National two Israeli air strikes targeted an old building near Baalbek, about 75km north of the Israel-Lebanon border.

Videos shared on social media showed plumes of smoke billowing from the area.

“Israel's aggression on Baalbek or any other areas will not remain without response,” Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah said in televised remarks delivered at the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter killed in recent days.

Shortly after, Hezbollah said it fired 60 rockets at an Israeli base in retaliation for the Baalbek strikes.

“In response to the Zionist aggression near the city of Baalbek, Hezbollah fighters targeted the base in the occupied Golan Heights with 60 Katyusha rockets”, the group said in a statement. Videos showed smoke billowing in an open area in the vicinity of the base.

In the evening, the Israeli army announced that it struck further Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, including the site from which a barrage of rockets was fired at the Golan Heights.

Israel has repeatedly threatened to the expand the scope of its conflict with Hezbollah, particularly given signs that a ceasefire in Gaza may be getting closer.

The Israeli military said it would “continue operating to defend the State of Israel from the threat of Hezbollah terrorist organisation, including in aerial operations above Lebanese territory”.

Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant indicated on Sunday that Israel planned to increase attacks on Hezbollah in the event of a possible ceasefire in the Gaza conflict.

“If a temporary pause is reached in Gaza, we will increase the fire in the north separately, and will continue until the full withdrawal of Hezbollah [from the border] and the return of Israeli citizens to their homes,” he said.

“The rules of engagement have been overlooked by the Israelis,” Karim el Mufti, a professor of international relations at Sciences Po Paris, told The National.

The so called “rules of engagement” refers to a set of tacit rules that loosely govern attacks and retaliation between the two enemies, to avoid a full-scale war.

“This was a miscalculation from Hezbollah. It has been caught off-guard by the Israelis: they did not anticipate that Israel would not abide by the rules of graduated and proportionate response,” he added.

Mr el Mufti explained that, on the other hand, Hezbollah, which is struggling amid a political and financial crisis in Lebanon, cannot "afford to escalate the conflict”, and “struggle to retaliate” without providing a justification for war.

Israeli drone downed

The Israeli army said it struck several targets belonging to Hezbollah's air defence unit in the Bekaa Valley “in response to the terror group shooting down a … Hermes 450 drone over southern Lebanon this morning”.

Hezbollah said it downed the drone over Lebanese territory with a surface-to-air missile over the Nabatieh area in southern Lebanon.

It was the second time the group has claimed to have shot down this type of drone. Footage shared online showed the weapon in flames as it plummeted to the ground.

The Israeli military said two missiles targeted an Israeli Air Force unmanned aerial vehicle operating over Lebanon. The first was intercepted by the David's Sling aerial defence system but the drone “fell inside Lebanese territory” after the second was launched.

Also on Monday, Israeli media reported a rocket fired from Lebanon hit a chicken coop in the border community of Shtula, injuring one person. They were said to be in a stable condition.

In the afternoon, a Hezbollah fighter was killed on the road to the village of al-Majadel after an Israeli drone targeted his car. Hezbollah named the fighter as Hassan Hussein Salameh, but it did not specify his rank.

The Israeli army said it had killed Mr Salameh and claimed he was the commander of one of Hezbollah's regional units. It said he had overseen attacks on Israeli troops and civilians in northern Israel.

Hezbollah opened a new front against Israel a day after the Israeli military launched an offensive in Gaza, where Israel has mounted a ground invasion amid relentless bombardment, killing more than 29,600 Palestinians following Hamas's surprise attack on Israel on October 7, which killed about 1,200 people.

The cross-border violence has killed at least 281 people in Lebanon, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Four months into the conflict, Israel has intensified its strikes deeper inside Lebanon amid accusations of “unlawful strikes” and “apparent indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on civilians,” according to Human Rights Watch.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.

The violence has uprooted tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border.

Updated: February 26, 2024, 6:19 PM