JERUSALEM – Israel said its warplanes struck in Lebanon on Tuesday in what Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz described as the largest-scale Israeli response to cross-border attacks by Lebanese guerrillas since 2000.
Mofaz spoke just hours after Israeli fighter jets attacked a command post of Hezbollah guerrillas in south Lebanon and after army bulldozers entered Lebanon to demolish a Hezbollah post just north of the community of Ghajar.
Hezbollah and the Lebanese army denied Israeli warplanes struck in southern Lebanon on Tuesday. Israeli warplanes struck a number of Hezbollah targets Monday, Israeli security officials said.
The Israeli strike came a day after the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah fired mortars and rockets toward the Israeli-Lebanese border, wounding 11 Israeli soldiers and damaging a house in an Israeli border community. The shelling sent thousands of Israeli civilians into bomb shelters. Israeli return fire killed four Hezbollah guerrillas.
Monday's Hezbollah attack "was the largest-scale, most hostile since the departure of Israeli forces from Lebanon (in 2000)," Mofaz said in remarks broadcast on Israel Radio. The Israeli response "was the widest against attempts by Hezbollah to escalate the situation."
Mofaz said Israel hit targets that "had not been attacked since the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon," including Hezbollah command, intelligence and communication posts.
The defense minister also said Hezbollah apparently suffered the greatest number of casualties since Israel's pullout from Lebanon.
In 2002, however, there was a longer confrontation, when Hezbollah fired rockets at Israel during a three-week period and Israeli forces hit back with air and artillery strikes.
The fighting marked a sudden surge in violence, the first cross-border fighting in five months. The United States accused Hezbollah of provoking the fighting, and urged the Lebanese government to take charge of the area.
Lebanon has requested that UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force stationed in the country, appeal to Israel to persuade it not to further retaliate for the Hezbollah strikes, Israel Army Radio.
Israeli army chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz confirmed that Lebanon had turned to UNIFIL, but would not elaborate.
Hezbollah frequently targets Israeli troops in the Chebaa Farms area, which the Iranian-backed group says should have been returned by Israel when it withdrew from south Lebanon. Israel says it captured the area from Syria in 1967 and will discuss its control of the land only in any future peace talks with the Arab country.
Hezbollah's actions appeared to have political motivations. As the powerful Shiite Muslim militant group in control of the Lebanese side of the border with Israel, Hezbollah is an ally of Syria in Lebanon. In recent weeks it has stepped up its criticism — along with Syria — of the United Nations and its investigation into the killing of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The probe has implicated Syrian officials in the February murder.
An escalation of tension in southern Lebanon would strengthen Syria's hand with the U.N. by focusing attention on the need for a stable Syria as a key to peace in Lebanon, where it kept a large military force for nearly three decades.
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the attack was a "deliberate provocation" by Hezbollah and urged Lebanon's government to take charge. "We have made it very clear to the Lebanese government that they need to control the situation in southern Lebanon," he said.