JERUSALEM – Israel's defense minister on Wednesday accused Syria of allowing the rearmament of Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon and said Israel has the right to act "forcefully" against the Shiite militia to counter the threat.
Defense Minister Amir Peretz's comments came days after Israel said it discovered four bombs in northern Israel recently planted by Hezbollah guerrillas. The Israeli claim, denied by Hezbollah, immediately raised tensions along the volatile border.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war last summer before a U.N.-brokered cease-fire took hold. Under the truce, thousands of Lebanese government troops and international peacekeepers patrol the border to maintain calm. The cease-fire also bars armed Hezbollah fighters from the border area and calls for a halt in unauthorized weapons transfers to the guerrilla group.
Speaking to visiting U.S. Jewish leaders, Peretz said Syria, Hezbollah's main ally, is continuing to allow weapons shipments to the group to cross its border with Lebanon.
"We can't under any circumstances ignore the transfer of weapons and ammunition to Hezbollah," Peretz said. While Israel remains committed to the cease-fire, he said, "we reserve the right to protect the citizens of the state of Israel and we will do this forcefully without any compromises."
In Beirut, a Hezbollah official declined comment.
Syria is Hezbollah's closest ally, and Israel accuses the Damascus government of providing weapons to the group and allowing arms from the guerrillas' other main supplier, Iran, to pass through its territory to Lebanon.
The Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot on Wednesday said Syria recently transferred Russian-made Kornet anti-tank missiles to Hezbollah in violation of the cease-fire agreement. The report cited unidentified "senior political sources."
During a trip to Moscow in October, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed concern that Russian missiles were reaching Hezbollah through third parties. At the time, Russia's defense minister said his government had settled the matter with Israel.
Peretz gave no firm evidence of the weapons transfers and did not specify what would provoke Israeli military action in Lebanon. But he said this week's discovery of the bombs along the border showed how critical the situation has become.
Israeli military officials said the bombs were planted in recent days, under the cover of bad weather. If true, it would mark a violation of the cease-fire and indicate a failure by the international peacekeepers to prevent new attacks on Israel.
Hezbollah denied the allegation, saying the explosives were planted months ago before the war. U.N. officials are looking into the Israeli report.
Peretz has come under heavy criticism for his handling of the war, which has widely been perceived as a failure by the Israeli public. Israel attacked Hezbollah on July 12 after the group infiltrated Israel, killing three soldiers and capturing two others.
Despite an advantage in firepower, the army failed to accomplish the two main goals set by Israeli leaders — destruction of Hezbollah and rescuing the two captured soldiers. It also was unable to prevent Hezbollah from raining thousands of rockets onto northern Israel.
A total of 159 Israelis were killed, including 39 civilians killed by Hezbollah rockets. More than 1,000 people were killed on the Lebanese side, according to tallies by government agencies, humanitarian groups and The Associated Press.
The count includes 250 Hezbollah fighters that the group's leaders now say died during Israel's intense air, ground and sea bombardments in Lebanon. Israel has estimated its forces have killed 600 Hezbollah fighters.