Tensions between Lebanon and Israel remain high after disputed clash

Israel says it foiled an attack from Hezbollah, which denies any involvement

epa08571111 Israeli soldiers from the Armored Corps on their Merkava tanks , seen at a  gathering site in the Golan Heights, 28 July 2020. Following the high tensions with the Lebanese militant group of Hezbollah at Lebanese-Israeli border. In accordance with the situational assessment, it was decided to reinforce the Northern Command with advanced fire systems, intelligence collection and special forces, added Israeli army spokesman on Twitter.  EPA/ATEF SAFADI
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Tensions between Lebanon and Israel persisted on Wednesday, two days after tensions flared for reasons that remain unclear on the volatile border zone between the two countries.

On Wednesday afternoon, Lebanon's state-run National News Agency reported that the Israeli army had deployed anti-missile artillery in the upper Galilee, following similar moves recently on the border region. During the day, Israeli war planes conducted mock air raids over South Lebanon.

Israel is bracing for an attack from Lebanese party-cum-militia Hezbollah during Eid al Adha this week, Israeli media reported. Meanwhile, Hezbollah warned that it would avenge the death of one of its fighters killed in Syria by an alleged Israeli attack on July 20.

Questions remained unanswered about what exactly happened on Monday afternoon on the border. Both Israeli and Lebanese eyewitnesses reported seeing smoke on the hills between the countries. But accounts diverge beyond that.

The Israeli army said that three to five Hezbollah soldiers managed to cross the Blue Line by a few meters. The Blue Line is not officially a border, but rather the line of withdrawal of the Israeli army in 2000, when it left South Lebanon after a 22-year occupation.

The Israeli army claims that the Hezbollah fighters were quickly spotted and were forced to retreat under heavy shelling. The incident lasted 90 minutes, according to Israeli news channel i24.

Israelis living along the northern border with Lebanon were told to stay at home. One Lebanese home was destroyed by the Israeli shelling. No casualties were reported on either side.

Despite Israeli claims of a thwarted Hezbollah attack, both the party and Lebanese authorities remained silent for several hours until Hezbollah published a press release early evening on Monday.

The paramilitary group denied that it had taken part in a military operation and mocked the Israeli army for panicking at the idea of an oncoming Hezbollah attack. A response to the death of Ali Mohsen is “definitely coming,” it warned, without saying when.

On Tuesday, Lebanese Prime Minister said that Israel had violated his country’s sovereignty with a “dangerous military escalation." The Lebanese army remained silent.

The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon, which patrols the border area, said that it had launched an investigation into the incident.

Unifil spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told The National that Force Commander Major-General Stefano Del Col was in contact with the Lebanese and Israeli armies “to decrease tension, prevent misunderstandings and maintain calm.”

Lebanese opinion on the incident is divided. Political analysts close to Hezbollah, including Faysal Abdel Sater, espoused the party’s version of events.

Mr Abdel Sater told The National that Israeli soldiers, already in a state of “utmost readiness” as they waited for Hezbollah’s retaliation to Mohsen’s death, panicked and “launched bombardments in a hysterical fashion.”

The cause of their fright could have been “the sound of trees in the wind, or maybe because of goats,” he hypothesised.

For Hezbollah, the incident is a “moral victory” because it “reflects the confusion of the Israeli [army] leadership,” said Mr Abdel Sater.

But not all analysts in Lebanon agree.

Khalil Helou, a retired general from the Lebanese army, said that he believed Israeli reports that Hezbollah attempted to infiltrate Israeli territory. The group then denied the operation to signal to Israel that it would not escalate further, he said.

“They repeated for over a week that they would avenge Mohsen’s death. So now, they satisfied their public and also told the Israelis that they would stop there,” Mr Helou told The National.

Following Israeli reports of the attack on Monday, Lebanese media published pictures of Mohsen's mother, wrapped in a yellow Hezbollah flag, distributing sweets to drivers in the village of Aitit in South Lebanon to seemingly celebrate the fact that the group had avenged her son's death.

“Hezbollah knows very well that the Israeli army can destroy them in a few days if it decides to go for a full-scale war,” said Mr Helou, a fierce critic of the Iran-backed party. But neither side wants this, he said.

“Hezbollah’s supporters are unhappy with Lebanon’s economic crisis. Israel knows Hezbollah is not a strategic threat, even though it can cause damage and inflict casualties in the Israeli territory. So why enter a war that would be costly?”

Mr Abdel Sater said that the reaction of Mohsen's mother was "natural". "What we are waiting for in the coming days could be harsh," he warned.

Israeli soldiers did not shoot at the retreating Hezbollah operatives to not cause a wider conflict, reported Israeli news website Mako. "The understanding in Israel is that if a number of Hezbollah terrorists were killed and their bodies were lying in the sun - this could have ignited a much bigger conflict," it wrote.

Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States but operates like a normal political party in Lebanon, where it is represented in Parliament and in the government.

The Israeli army did not release a video of the alleged incident, despite the existence of numerous security cameras along the Blue Line. This has been interpreted by some analysts in Lebanon as proof of Israel’s bad faith, but footage of such incidents is not routinely made public.