Israel, Hezbollah trade fire across volatile Lebanese border

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli forces exchanged fire with Hezbollah militants on Monday for over an hour along the volatile Israeli-Lebanese frontier, the heaviest bout of 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 started at around 3:30 p.m. local time and lasted for about an hour and a half. Israeli civilians living in the area were ordered to remain indoors.

The exchange of fire 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. Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria in recent years, targeting Iranian forces and what it says are strategic weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah fought to a stalemate in a month-long war in Lebanon in 2006.

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Israeli army spokesman 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.

Conricus said Israeli troops opened fire on the militants after they entered Israeli-controlled territory, and that the militants 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.

Hezbollah said its fighters were not involved in any fighting along the border with Israel. In a statement following the clashes, the group said all claims by Israeli media about an infiltration attempt by Hezbollah into Israel “are not true at all, and are attempts to invent illusive victories.”

Hezbollah said the group’s retaliation for its member killed by an Israeli strike in Syria “is definitely coming, and the Zionists should remain waiting for the punishment for their crimes.” The group said it would not remain silent after Israel’s cross-border shelling Monday, which Hezbollah said damaged a home in the southern Lebanese village of Hibariyeh.

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNFIL, said its commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col was in contact with both parties during the exchange of fire to assess the situation and decrease tensions, urging “maximum restraint.”

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 defense — close to our borders and far from our borders.”

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz cut short meetings in parliament to meet military commanders at army headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The exchange of fire comes a day after Gantz met with army brass near the country’s northern frontier. Following his visit, Israel released a statement saying a military drone had crashed in southern Lebanon.

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Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.

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