Rockets launched from southern Lebanon slammed into northern Israel this morning. Israeli forces replied with artillery fire. Both sides downplayed the incident. Correspondent Ben Gilbert reports.
This text below is a phonetic transcript of a radio story broadcast by PRI's THE WORLD. It has been created on deadline by a contractor for PRI. The transcript is included here to facilitate internet searches for audio content. Please report any transcribing errors to firstname.lastname@example.org. This transcript may not be in its final form, and it may be updated. Please be aware that the authoritative record of material distributed by PRI's THE WORLD is the program audio.
LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. There were fears today that a 2nd Front might be opening in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Militants in Lebanon fired Katyusha rockets into Northern Israel this morning. One of them hit a nursing home. Ben Gilbert is in Beirut, Lebanon. He says the incident brought back memories of the 2006 war in Lebanon and it showed just how easily Israel's operation in Gaza could escalate into a wider crisis.
BEN GILBERT: The rockets landed in and around the Israeli town of Nahariya about five miles from the Lebanese border. The Israeli military responded by firing artillery shells that landed near the rocket launch site in South Lebanon. The rocket fire comes after much speculation about whether the armed Lebanese group, Hezbollah, would respond to the Israeli incursion into Gaza. Israel and Hezbollah's war in the summer of 2006 was sparked during a similar Israeli operation against Hamas. At a rally yesterday in Beirut's Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the Israeli offensive into Gaza. He said all possibilities were open against Israel, but today Hezbollah official and Lebanon's Energy Minister Mohammad Fneish denied his group fired the rockets into Israel.
MOHAMMAD FNEISH: [TRANSLATION] We don't know which group carried this out. From our point of view as Hezbollah, as we've said many times, when we take some action we are courageous enough to announce what we are doing.
GILBERT: Lebanon is home to 400,000 Palestinian refuges and dozens of militant Palestinian splinter groups. And Israeli President Shimon Peres immediately pointed the finger at one of them as the possible culprit.
SHIMON PERES: We know that the firing in the North was done by the National Front, which is a separated terrorist group; there are some of them in Lebanon. And our policy is to reply immediately, so our guns answered the source of the fire and we shall continue if it will be repeated.
GILBERT: But a repeat, and an escalation, is exactly what the United Nation's interim force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL is in place to prevent. The force has 10,000 peace keepers in Southern Lebanon on the border with Israel. Today UNIFIL's commander called for restraint on both side; UNIFIL Spokesman Neeraj Singh.
NEERAJ SINGH: We are investigating the circumstances of the incident and additional troops have been deployed on the ground. Patrols have been intensified across that area for operations to prevent any further such incidents.
GILBERT: And Israel's relatively light response today suggests a reluctance to start a 2nd Front; Mark Regev is an Israeli government spokesman.
MARK REGEV: Both the people of Lebanon and the people of Israel, and both the government of Lebanon and the government of Israel have an interest in keeping things quiet in the North. No one wants to see another escalation there, a return to what happened in 2006. And I'm very hopeful that that is still possible.
GILBERT: Hezbollah has its own reason to stay out of the fight. The group recently won a two-year political struggle for veto power in Lebanon's cabinet. A confrontation that nearly led the country into another civil war and it's gearing up for legislative elections in a few months. And here in the southern suburbs of Beirut, reconstruction of dozens of buildings destroyed by Israeli air strikes in 2006 is still under way. Those air strikes left 20,000 people in this area homeless. Villages, roads and infrastructure in Hezbollah's other stronghold in South Lebanon, were also devastated during the war. And few if any here are eager to see a repeat of that conflict. For The World, I'm Ben Gilbert in Beirut.