UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Iranian-backed Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah said it would respond with a “surprise strike” against Israel after two drones landed in Beirut’s southern suburbs, but ruled out a new war amid growing fears of an all-out conflict between the two old foes.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the planes that crashed in the southern suburbs, which are dominated by Hezbollah, over the weekend. One of them exploded, causing some damage to Hezbollah’s media center in the area, but no one was hurt.
“I rule out that the atmosphere will be war,” Sheikh Naim Qassem, the group’s deputy secretary-general, said in a television interview on Tuesday night. The atmosphere is a response to an attack … and everything is decided in due course.”
Two sources allied to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group told Reuters on Tuesday the group was preparing a “deliberate strike” in response to the incident, but was seeking to avoid a new war with Israel.
A regional security official said the incident was a “strike that hit Hezbollah’s capabilities in the manufacture of precision missiles”.
“Israel’s message to Hizbullah here was great: keep manufacturing and we will continue to beat you.”
Asked what would happen if Hezbollah escalated after the response, the official said, “I imagine that Israel will then escalate its strikes and completely eliminate this capability. Details of these sites are known. The ball is now in Hezbollah’s court. ”
Despite indications that Israel and Hezbollah do not want a new comprehensive conflict, the latest tension has come at a sensitive time for the Middle East. That tension, in addition to the incident, was caused by an air strike in Syria that Israel said it had carried out to thwart an Iranian attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to appear decisive ahead of elections due within three weeks. Iran and the United States are at odds over the 2015 nuclear deal.
Shia fighters in Iraq, mostly backed by Iran, blame the United States and Israel for recent bombings in their armories.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, in a speech on Sunday, described the incident as the first Israeli attack on Lebanon since the 2006 war.
Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Nasrallah should “calm down” and warned Lebanon and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force, the foreign arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
– “We want any blow to be a surprise” –
The details of the planes’ departure point have yet to emerge. Sheikh Naim Qassem did not elaborate in response to a question about the source or target of the two planes during his talk with the Arabic channel of the Russian network (RT).
But he added that Hezbollah considered the incident an attack that must be retaliated “so that Israel does not create new equations imposed by its calculations and it remains the same.” The party said the aircraft were “booby-trapped”.
“We want any strike to be a surprise … there is no interest in getting into the details,” Kassem said. He added that the coming days will reveal this.
Nasrallah has repeatedly said in his speeches for a year that a war with Israel is unlikely.
The two sides fought their latest war in July 2006 after Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid. Some 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed in the war and 158 people in Israel, most of them military personnel, died.
Sources from the region said Israel and Hezbollah had since reached an unwritten understanding that they would avoid attacks inside Lebanon and Israel, fearing they could escalate into war despite continuing exchanges of fire in Syria.
Tensions have weakened confidence in Lebanon’s economy, already suffering from one of the world’s largest public debt burdens and low growth.
The cost of insuring Lebanon’s sovereign debt jumped to a new record high, while its dollar-denominated bonds came under pressure again on Wednesday.
Over the weekend two Hezbollah fighters were killed in an Israeli air strike in Syria, where the Lebanese group is providing important support to Damascus.
Israeli officials say the air force has carried out hundreds of strikes on what it says are Iranian targets and Hezbollah arms transfers inside Syria.
Iran also has significant influence in Iraq through Shiite fighters there. It is allied with Yemen’s Houthi movement, which is fighting a Saudi-led coalition.
Hezbollah, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, has recently fought wars in the region, including in Syria and Iraq, as part of a Tehran-backed alliance.
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