The Lebanese armed group Hezbollah has fired a barrage of rockets into Israel after at least three of its members were killed during an Israeli bombardment of southern Lebanon amid soaring tensions on Israel’s northern border.
Hezbollah in a statement on Monday said it had fired rockets and mortars on two Israeli military posts in the Galilee. The Israeli military said it identified a number of “launches” from Lebanon into Israel, without any injuries. It said it was responding with artillery fire onto Lebanon.
Hezbollah, the most formidable member of a regional network of armed groups supported by Iran, confirmed in statements on Monday that Israeli shelling had killed at least three of its members.
The Associated Press news agency identified those killed as Hussam Mohammad Ibrahim, Ali Raef Ftouni, and Ali Hassan Hodroj.
Hezbollah said that those killed had been “martyred as a result of the Zionist aggression on south Lebanon Monday afternoon”.
The Israeli military began shelling southern Lebanon on Monday after a cross-border raid claimed by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) armed group.
The Israeli army said soldiers backed by helicopters killed at least two gunmen who crossed the frontier.
Questions continue to loom about whether Hezbollah, a sophisticated fighting force with an arsenal of long-range missiles, will enter the war between Israel and the armed wing of the Palestinian group Hamas, which governs the besieged Gaza Strip. Doing so would elevate the current conflict into a two-front war for Israel, long considered a nightmare scenario by the country’s military establishment.
The Reuters news outlet reported that a spokesperson for the United Nations peacekeeping mission along the Lebanon-Israel border said its head Major General Aroldo Lazaro was “in contact with the involved parties, urging them to exercise maximum restraint”.
Hezbollah and Israel exchanged fire on Sunday, with Hezbollah firing missiles on Israeli positions in Shebaa Farms, which is claimed by Lebanon and was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War, in “solidarity” with the Palestinians.
But the Iran-backed armed group has avoided deeper participation thus far, and denied involvement in the PIJ attack that took place on Monday. The Israeli military said its forces had “killed a number of armed suspects that infiltrated into Israeli territory from Lebanese territory”, but did not offer a specific number.
Some experts have said that Hezbollah’s position could change if Israel were to launch a ground offensive in Gaza that would likely have devastating impacts on the besieged and tightly-packed Strip, home to more than 2.3 million Palestinians.
Al Jazeera’s Ali Hashem said the killing of Hezbollah fighters represents a “real escalation” at the Lebanese border, noting that the group often retaliates for the killing of its members. Hezbollah and Israel have not seen a major confrontation since the 2006 war.
Former Lebanese Army General Elias Farahat told Al Jazeera that it remains unclear whether confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah would continue to escalate.
“I think that the concept of the rules of engagement will continue, that is: to fire on a target, and the Israelis will respond on the source of the firing. There is no idea, and nobody on both sides that thinks about expanding the front of confrontation between each other. So far it is restricted on definite targets.”
The possibility of escalation between Israel and Hezbollah has also struck fear in residents of southern Lebanon, who have borne the brunt of previous Israeli offensives.
“Our house is really close to the border, so we’re leaving and going down to the village,” Gabi Hage, a father of three who described nearby shelling, told Reuters. “All my neighbours are doing the same.”
Hamas launched a multifront assault on southern Israel on Saturday. At least 800 Israelis have been killed and thousands of others wounded, while the attack has shaken the confidence of the country, long accustomed to overwhelming military supremacy in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Images have circulated on social media of Israelis killed and kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen at military bases and towns throughout southern Israel.
Senior Israeli officials have promised to punish the Gaza Strip following the Hamas assault.
Israel formally declared war on Sunday and gave the green light for “significant military steps” against Hamas.
More than 500 Palestinians, including women and children, have been killed in Israeli air raids on Gaza since Saturday, with thousands of others wounded.
Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant has ordered a “total siege” of Gaza, cutting off access to food, water, fuel, and electricity.