Three killed in Israel-Hizbollah border clashes

Israeli military said an anti-tank rocket fired from Lebanon had earlier struck a military vehicle, resulting in "several" casualties.

Israeli military vehicles are seen burning in the Shebaa Farms, an occupied area along the Israeli-Lebanese border, on January 28, 2015. Maruf Khatib/AFP Photo
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BEIRUT // Clashes between Hizbollah and Israel on the Lebanese border on Wednesday killed a UN peacekeeper and two Israeli soldiers.
The fighting came 10 days after an Israeli air strike killed six Hizbollah fighters and an Iranian general in Syria, an act for which both the militant group and Iran had vowed revenge.
Wednesday's violence started when Hizbollah fired five anti-tank rockets at a military convoy in the morning, killing two soldiers, the Israeli military said.
They responded by firing more than 50 artillery shells back across the border, killing a Spanish peacekeeper from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.
The UNIFIL mission urged all sides to show "maximum restraint to prevent an escalation".
More than an hour after the attack, military commanders reported that mortars had hit an Israeli military position in Mount Hermon and that civilians were being evacuated from the area.
The fighting came as tensions have increased along the borders between Syria, Israel and Lebanon since Israel's air strike that killed the senior Hizbollah fighters on January 18. Among the dead was Jihad Mughniyeh - the son of revered Hizbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008. On Tuesday the Israel said two rockets fired from Syria landed in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In retaliation, Israeli warplanes bombed Syrian artillery positions overnight.
"When you hit the [Syrian] regime it's a message to Hizbollah, when you hit Hizbollah it's a message to Iran," said retired Lebanese Army General Elias Hanna.
Shortly before Wednesday's clashes, Israel had deployed tanks and drones along the frontier at several points, Lebanon's state news agency said.
Hizbollah said it had "targeted an Israeli military convoy in the Shebaa Farms composed of several vehicles which was transporting several Zionist soldiers and officers."
The Israeli army said it had responded with "combined aerial and ground strikes" on Hizbollah in southern Lebanon after the attack.
Hizbollah was founded in the 1980s with the intention of driving Israeli forces out of Lebanon using guerrilla tactics. Israel's occupation of parts of Lebanon finally ended in 2000 but conflict remained. In the summer of 2006 Israel launched a 34-day war against the militant group after Hizbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. That war killed more than 1,000 Lebanese nationals and 160 Israelis.
But in recent years, the border has remained relatively quiet as Hizbollah turned its attention to the war in Syria. The group entered the Syrian conflict in 2012 to back the regime of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad against rebel forces. In Syria Hizbollah is battling rebel units as well as the ISIL group and Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Along with the Lebanese Army and a smattering of small local Christian militias, Hizbollah is fighting on Lebanon's eastern border against militants trying to enter the country from Syria.
Distracted by the war in Syria, Hizbollah has in the past shown restraint on the Israeli front. In December 2013, senior Hizbollah commander Hassan Al Laqis was gunned down in his Beirut apartment building's garage, an attack Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah blamed on Israel.
Over the course of Syria's civil war, Israeli air strikes have targeted convoys in that country that were bringing weapons to Hizbollah. And earlier this month, Mr Nasrallah announced that a senior member of his organisation had been caught spying for Israel.
But none of those incidents goaded Hizbollah into a major retaliatory attack.
With Hizbollah active on multiple fronts, it is unlikely it would want to be caught up in a prolonged confrontation with Israel.
"Hizbollah's popular base is quite afraid of being dragged into a war that everybody knows will be devastating and wouldn't bring much gain," said Lebanese American University political science professor Imad Salamey.
But he said from Israel's perspective, the country "wants to maintain an upper hand and make sure that no group - particularly Iranian - will gain strategic depth in that area."
*With additional reporting Agence France-Presse