By William Booth and Hugh Naylor
JERUSALEM — Residents of Israel and Lebanon feared Wednesday that their countries were edging toward war after Israeli troops and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia exchanged deadly barrages across a fractious border earlier in the day.
The clashes, which began with a Hezbollah attack that killed two Israeli soldiers, marked one of the most serious flare-ups of violence in the area since a month-long war in 2006 and raised tensions in a volatile tri-border zone close to positions held by Syrian insurgents, including Islamist factions. A U.N. peacekeeper was also killed, although it was unclear how he died.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that “whoever is behind today’s attack will pay the full price.” In addition to Hezbollah, Netanyahu said Israel would hold the governments of Lebanon and Syria — which Hezbollah is backing in its civil war — responsible for any attack originating from their territories. The Israeli leader, in the midst of close elections, also blamed Iran, another ally of Hezbollah, for trying to open a new front against Israel.
As anti-armor missiles and tank artillery flashed across the countries’ frontier, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, traveling in China, said Israel should retaliate “in a very harsh and disproportionate manner.”
The Lebanese-based Shiite movement Hezbollah, which claimed responsibility for the attack on an Israeli convoy, also threatened more actions. The deadly exchange on the border came 10 days after an Israeli airstrike killed six Hezbollah fighters and a senior military commander from Iran. Hezbollah leaders had vowed to retaliate.
The Israeli military said seven troops were wounded in the hostilities, and the United Nations said a Spanish member of its peacekeeping force was killed in the village of Ghajar, which straddles the Israel-Lebanon border. Andrea Tenenti, a spokesman for the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, said the circumstances of the “tragic incident” were being investigated.
The clashes began when an antitank missile struck Israeli military and civilian vehicles traveling in a convoy along the border. The attack was followed by mortar rounds launched from Lebanon that landed near Israeli troops in the foothills of Mount Hermon, according to Israeli military officials.
That barrage was answered by dozens of artillery shells fired into Lebanon. Israeli military officials said their forces launched “aerial and ground strikes at Hezbollah operational positions.”
In a separate operation, Israeli jets hit Syrian army artillery positions near the Israel-occupied Golan Heights in response to two rockets fired from Syria the previous day. No casualties were reported.
The triangle where Israel, Lebanon and Syria meet has been mostly quiet for years, but increasingly the nearly four-year-old conflict in Syria has spilled over. Hezbollah has backed the embattled government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is also supported by Iran.
The recent tensions began escalating Jan. 18, when a missile from an Israeli warplane struck a convoy traveling near the Syria-Israel demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights, killing the six Hezbollah members and an Iranian general. Israeli officials claimed Hezbollah had been planning a large-scale attack against Israel.
Among the dead was Jihad Mughniyah, the son of Imad Mughniyah, a former top Hezbollah militant who was assassinated in a 2008 car bombing in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Israel is suspected of playing a role in the elder Mughniyah’s killing.
The Israeli military had since been bracing for a retaliatory strike, moving additional soldiers, tanks and air-defense systems into the border zone.
After Wednesday morning’s exchange, Israeli civilians were evacuated from some areas along the border.
The exchange of fire took place in a contested area known as Shebaa Farms. Hezbollah says the area belongs to Lebanon, and the United Nations defines the area as part of Syria. The Israelis claim it is theirs.
“The tension in the north is very tricky. It’s a very flammable situation,” said Maj. Gen. Israel Ziv, a reserve officer in the Israel army and former chief of operations.
“Israel has to contain it, to defend our interests, but not get drawn in” to the Syrian battlefields, Ziv said.
The fact that Hezbollah attacked Israeli troops, rather than Israeli population centers near the border, may make Israel less likely to respond harshly. But the death of two Israeli soldiers might also bring further Israeli action at a time when Hezbollah, distracted by its fight in Syria, could be weakened.
Some analysts estimate that as many as 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria, while others put that number in the hundreds. Hezbollah does not disclose such information, but its losses in Syria are widely believed to have been significant.
“Hezbollah is stretched thin because of Syria. Even if it were not in Syria, that doesn’t mean that Hezbollah would want a major escalation with Israel,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor at the American University of Beirut.
“The Israeli shelling in the south isn’t terribly intense,” Khashan said. “So I don’t think this will lead to a major conflagration.”
A Lebanese political analyst who has close ties with senior Hezbollah officials described the latest attack as “a trap set by Hezbollah.”
“It’s important to note that Hezbollah’s first statement [on Wednesday’s attack] was called Communique No. 1, which means that it is signaling that it is ready to fight more,” said the analyst, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the tense situation.
Netanyahu warned Hezbollah not to escalate.
“I suggest that all those who are challenging us on our northern border, look at what happened in Gaza,” he said, referring to the 50-day war between Israel and the Islamist militant movement Hamas, which left more than 2,100 Palestinians dead and swathes of Gaza in ruins.
He later sharpened his warnings, singling out Iran and saying those “behind the attack today will pay the full price.”
Israel and Hezbollah fought a four-week war in 2006, which failed to dislodge key Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon and was interpreted in the Arab world as a victory for the militia group.
On Wednesday, Israeli military officials said rumors that an Israeli soldier was abducted by Hezbollah forces were untrue. A kidnapping of Israeli soldiers was one of the events that led to the 2006 war.