Israeli forces on Monday exchanged fire with Hezbollah militants along the volatile Israeli-Lebanese frontier, as Israeli civilians living in the area were ordered to remain indoors amid the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies in nearly a year.
The fighting occurred in an area known as Chebaa Farms, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and is claimed by Lebanon. Residents of southern Lebanon near the border reported Israeli shelling was continuing for more than an hour.
The fighting came as Israel was on heightened alert for a possible attack by Hezbollah, after an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed a Hezbollah militant last week.
Israeli army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the military was “able to successfully thwart an attempt to infiltrate into Israel” by a group of armed militants.
“We know for certain that they were armed and that they crossed the Blue Line into Israel,” Conricus told reporters, referring to the line delineating Israel’s frontier with Lebanon.
UN force urges restraint
Conricus said Israeli troops opened fire on the militants after they entered Israeli territory, and that the gunmen returned fire. Conricus said no Israeli forces were wounded in the exchange, but could not comment on the condition of the militants, who fled the scene.
Israel and Hezbollah fought to a stalemate in a month-long war in Lebanon in 2006. Israel has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Syria in recent years targeting what it says are Iranian weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
There was no immediate statement by Hezbollah.
The United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, said its commander, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, was in contact with both parties to assess the situation and decrease tensions.
“He urges maximum restraint,” the UNIFIL statement said.
Speaking in parliament, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was closely following developments in the north.
“The military is prepared for every scenario,” he said. “We operate in all the arenas for Israel’s defence — close to our borders and far from our borders.”
Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz cut short meetings in parliament to meet military commanders at army headquarters in Tel Aviv.