Hezbollah leader: no more ‘red lines’ against Israel

After Sunday’s cross-border attack, the militant group said it entered a new phase in hostilities with its neighbour

epa06111359 A grab picture from Hezbollah's al-Manar TV shows Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah giving a televised address from an undisclosed location in Lebanon, 26 July 2017. Nasrallah spoke about the victory of Hezbollah during a military operation against the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and Al-nusrah Front militant groups in Jurud Arsal mountainous region bordering with Syria. Hezbollah began five days ago an offensive to clear radicals from the town of Arsal and al-Qalamoun along the Lebanese Syrian border.  EPA/HEZBOLLAH MEDIA OFFICE / AL-MANAR TV GRAB
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Hezbollah has launched “a new phase” without limits against Israel, party leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Monday after his fighters fired missiles over the border the evening before.

On Sunday afternoon, Hezbollah launched anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military vehicle from near the Lebanese town of Maroun Al Ras towards the Israeli border village of Avivim. Israel said it responded with about 100 artillery shells.

The Lebanese army reported that Israel had fired back with “over 40 cluster and phosphorous bombs”.

The attack came in response to Israeli strikes in Syria that killed two Hezbollah fighters last week and an incident in which two drones crashed in Beirut.

Nasrallah then gave a speech on Monday evening to discuss Sunday’s operation.

“Remember September 1, 2019, as the beginning of a new phase,” Nasrallah said. “There will be no more red lines."

Israel has said that no one was injured in the Hezbollah raid or the artillery response into Lebanon.

Hezbollah made a point of shifting tactics in their attack into Israel.

In similar flare-ups between Israel and Hezbollah since they last fought an all-out war in 2006, the Iran-backed Shiite majority armed group has usually conducted cross-border raids around the Shebaa Farms, which it considers to be occupied Lebanese territory since 1967.

Sunday’s attack took place nearly 30 kilometres away from the Shebaa Farms.

The last time Israel and Hezbollah clashed in Lebanon was in January 2015 after Israel launched an air strike against a Hezbollah convoy in the Syrian Golan Heights that killed at least six fighters and an Iranian general.

Around 10 days later, Hezbollah retaliated by firing anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military convoy, killing two Israeli soldiers, near the Shebaa Farms.

Then on December 19, 2015, Israel carried out an airstrike that killed Samir Kuntar, a high profile Druze Hezbollah commander who had been convicted in Israel of the brutal murder of police officer and an Israeli family but he was released in a deal with Hezbollah in 2003.

Kuntar was killed in Syria and Hezbollah responded on January 4, 2016, with a non-fatal strike that destroyed Israeli vehicles, also in Shebaa Farms border area.

Israel has not directly attacked Hezbollah in Lebanon, instead they hit targets in Syria where the group fights alongside Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

But the Israeli drones that crashed on August 25 in the heart of south Beirut, a base of support for Hezbollah, broke the unwritten “rules of engagement”, Nasrallah has said.

On Wednesday last week, the Lebanese army fired for the first time at an Israeli drone, forcing it to turn back. Hezbollah has not retaliated against drones yet.

On Monday evening, Nasrallah said Hezbollah’s much anticipated Sunday cross-border attack had sent Israel a message that "if you attack, then all your border, your forces and your settlements" will be at risk.

As usual, he boasted about Hezbollah’s strength and taunted Israel, saying it was “weaker than a spider’s web".

Nasrallah said the group’s attack had strengthened its deterrence abilities.

“The ceiling of aggression against Lebanon has become clear,” he said.

The border between Lebanon and Israel was mostly calm on Monday easing fears that Sunday’s strikes could escalate.

In a video broadcast on Monday evening, a few hours before Nasrallah gave his speech, the group’s Al Manar TV station broadcast footage of the attack.

The clip shows a Kornet anti-tank missiles being fired head-on from the Lebanese side of the border towards an Israeli armoured vehicle and a second projectile being fired from the side at almost the same time.

The missiles appear to hit a moving Israeli military vehicle, described as a Wolf armoured vehicle carrying eight soldiers.

Al Manar also aired images of the Israeli military base at Avivim, saying that hundreds of soldiers are normally stationed there but that it was emptied a few days ago in anticipation of the attack.

While Israel has said that no soldiers were injured in the attack, and media showed images released by the military purporting to be the armoured vehicle hit in the attack with only a damaged wheel, Hezbollah has insisted there were casualties. Lebanese media have been reporting Hezbollah’s claims.

However, the footage released by Al Manar did not show if anyone had been wounded.

The artillery fire in response to the attack lasted about two hours and hit fields near the border village of Maroun Al Ras and the nearby village of Yaroun.

But by early evening the guns had stopped firing and a UN spokesperson said that “calm had returned in the area”.

In Maroun Al Ras, residents inspected their tobacco and olive fields early on Monday, some of which were burned by the Israeli fire.

Others gathered to take selfies in front of the smouldering agricultural land.

A patrol of United Nations peacekeepers was seen near the border fence on Monday, searching the sides of a road with metal detectors apparently to make sure there are no unexploded shells. A UN helicopter flew overhead while an armoured personnel carrier followed the peacekeepers.

As events were unfolding on Sunday, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri called US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Emmanuel Bonne, a foreign policy adviser to French President Emmanuel Macron, asking them to intervene to urge Israel not to escalate.

Head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Gen Stefano Del Col, urged Israel and Lebanon to “exercise maximum restraint”. He met with Israel’s military chief, Lt Gen Aviv Kohavi, on Sunday.

“We will not accept attacks on our civilians or soldiers,” Lt Gen Kohavi said, adding that the Lebanese government and the UN peacekeepers “must bring Iran and Hezbollah’s precision-guided missile manufacturing project to its end”.

Israeli sources have been claiming that the Beirut drone incident on August 25 was to destroy sophisticated Iranian equipment to make precision-guided missiles. Nasrallah has denied the claim saying they don’t need to manufacture them in Lebanon as they have enough already.

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was prepared for any scenario, but he avoided his usually much tougher language towards Israel's enemies.

Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, and Iran-backed Hezbollah to be its most-immediate military threat. Hezbollah has a battle-tested army that has been fighting alongside the forces of Syrian President Al Assad in Syria’s civil war, and it is believed to possess an arsenal of some 130,000 missiles and rockets.

Throughout the Syrian war, Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of air strikes in Syria aimed at preventing alleged Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah. But in recent weeks, Israel is believed to have widened its campaign and struck Iranian or Hezbollah targets in Iraq and Lebanon as well.

A State Department official said Hezbollah should refrain from "hostile actions which threaten Lebanon's security, stability, and sovereignty," and suggested Iran had a hand in regional violence.

"This is another example of the destabilising role of Iranian proxies in undermining peace and security in the region," the official said.

Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Qassem, said on Sunday night that the group was committed to retaliating whenever it comes under attack.

“Hezbollah wants to preserve deterrence and the rules of engagement in order to prevent something worse from happening,” he said.