Los Angeles Times (Link) - Borzou Daragahi and Raed Rafei (January 8, 2009)
Lebanese army and international forces bolstered troop numbers, stepped up patrols and declared a state of alert today after an early morning rocket attack on Israel by an unknown group in southern Lebanon threatened to widen the ongoing Gaza Strip conflict.
The rocket fire, which struck a nursing home and mildly injured at least two civilians, resurrected memories of the destructive 2006 war between Israel and the Shiite militia Hezbollah, an ally of the Gaza-based militant group Hamas. Minutes after the attack, Israel responded by firing at least six artillery shells at the suspected launch site. Both Lebanese and Israeli authorities shut down schools in the area for fear of a military escalation as Israeli fighter jets flew low along the border.
There was no claim of responsibility for the initial attack, and both Hezbollah and the major Palestinian organizations based in Lebanon denied any role. "We hope that it won't become an action that makes the situation more complicated," Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas told reporters today in Madrid as he toured world capitals in a quest for a Gaza cease-fire.
But analysts said it was possible Hezbollah could have given a minor Palestinian group approval to launch the attack as a warning to Israel, or to test the Jewish state in a small but symbolic action to see whether Israel is gearing up for another round of battle in the two adversaries' quarter-century confrontation.
"They're slowly sending out feelers to test Israel's readiness for a possible war against Hezbollah," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, a British-Lebanese researcher and scholar who has written extensively about Hezbollah. "They're just playing a war of nerves with Israel."
"It is safe to assume that Palestinian operatives, working in coordination with Hezbollah and sponsored by Iran, are responsible for the rocket attacks in Nahariya and elsewhere in the north," Yoav Stern, a correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, wrote on the paper's website today.
Only one small Palestinian group declined to disavow the attack. Anwar Raja, a spokesman for the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, told Al Jazeera television that he "did not affirm or deny his faction's responsibility for the attacks."
Southern Lebanon, which abuts northern Israel, has been patrolled by Lebanese army troops and a bolstered force of about 12,000 United Nations troops known as the Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL, since the 2006 war between the Jewish state and Hezbollah, the powerful Shiite militia and political organization that is a state unto itself in Lebanon.
Rocket fire from the valleys and mountains of southern Lebanon into northern Israel has for decades been a source of regional friction and wars, beginning with Palestine Liberation Organization attacks and Israeli incursions in the 1970s. In today's incident, the unknown group fired three or more Katyusha rockets from a steep valley between the villages of Dhaira and Tayra Harfa, a rural Hezbollah stronghold about four miles east of the Lebanese coastal town of Naqoura and less than two miles from the Israeli frontier.
The rockets landed around the northern Israeli resort town of Nahariya shortly after 7:30 a.m., authorities in Israel and Lebanon said. As a UNIFIL helicopter scoured the area, Israel returned fire within 15 minutes, causing no injuries or damage, officials and witnesses said.
"It was an immediate response mechanism that shoots immediately at the location where the rockets came from," Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for UNIFIL, said in a phone interview from the organization's Naqoura headquarters.
Residents of the sparsely inhabited agricultural region panicked as Israeli fighter jets flew above. Families rushed to fetch their children from school.
"Of course we got scared because this reminded us of the war in 2006," said Hossein Fouani, 21, a stone quarry employee who lives in Dhaira and survived the previous conflict huddling with relatives at a U.N. compound.
UNIFIL commander Brig. Gen. Claudio Graziano, who maintains contact with both Israeli and Lebanese authorities, publicly called for "maximum restraint" by all parties, and as evening approached, tensions between Israel and Lebanon appeared to ease, even as the fighting in the Gaza Strip continued to rage.
Experts say that the attack, which employed older Katyusha rockets, bore the hallmarks of Palestinian groups rather than Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of newer, longer-range weapons. "It's very possible that Hezbollah wasn't aware of the attack," said Saad-Ghorayeb.
Analysts note that some supporters of the Palestinian cause have accused Hezbollah of abandoning the fight.
"It could be that Palestinian groups are trying to corner Hezbollah and draw the group into a confrontation with Israel," said Sami Nader, a professor of international relations at the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut.