Israel and Hezbollah stepped back from further confrontation Thursday after a flare-up of fighting across the Lebanese border raised fears that a broader conflict might erupt.
The border was calm Thursday, a day after a Hezbollah ambush of Israeli army vehicles killed two soldiers and triggered Israeli artillery and airstrikes in Lebanon that killed a United Nations peacekeeper. It was the deadliest outbreak of fighting in the area since a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon confirmed reports that Israel had received a message from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon that Hezbollah wasn’t interested in further escalation.
“There are channels of coordination between us and Lebanon through UNIFIL, and such a message was indeed received from Lebanon,” he told Army Radio.
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Israel sent a similar message through UNIFIL, Reuters reported, citing a Lebanese source who was briefed on the situation.
Hezbollah claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s anti-tank missile strike from Lebanon on Israeli troops traveling in a pair of unmarked civilian vehicles on the edge of the Israeli-held Golan Heights. The Iranian-backed guerrilla group had vowed to retaliate after an Israeli airstrike in Syria on Jan. 18 killed six Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian general.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s been denouncing a potential accord between Western powers and Iran on its nuclear program, linked the Hezbollah attack to Iran.
“It is Iran that is responsible for yesterday’s attack against us from Lebanon,” he said. “This is the same Iran that is now trying to achieve an agreement, via the major powers, that would leave it with the ability to develop nuclear weapons, and we strongly oppose this agreement.”
In a television interview, Yaalon accused Iran of prodding Hezbollah to launch attacks and said the deadly Israeli strike in Syria earlier this month was meant to block attempts by Hezbollah to “open a front” along the border between Syria and the Golan. Hezbollah and Iran have sent forces to Syria to support the government of President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war. Hezbollah has said the unit Israel struck was inspecting Syrian government soldiers battling rebel forces at the town of Quneitra, who include the Nusra Front, al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.
Spain has called on the United Nations to investigate the death of the Spanish peacekeeper during Wednesday’s fighting.
“It is clear that this was because of the escalation of the violence, and it came from the Israeli side,” said Roman Oyarzun Marchesi, Spain’s ambassador to the U.N.
The Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, urged the U.N. to conduct an “immediate, exhaustive and complete” investigation, promising that once the information was available, the Spanish government would “not hesitate to demand accountability.”
The Israeli foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, called his Spanish counterpart after the incident to offer condolences, but Israel hasn’t acknowledged responsibility for the death. The army said the incident would be investigated.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent