BEIRUT, Lebanon — Hezbollah fighters targeted an Israeli army convoy near the border between the two countries on Wednesday, killing two soldiers and prompting a barrage of shell fire into southern Lebanon.
The attack, coming just days after an Israeli airstrike killed a number of Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general in Syria, marks a significant escalation of tensions between the two sides, who fought a bitter war in 2006 that killed more than 1,000 Lebanese nationals — mostly civilians — and around 150 Israelis.
The current crisis represents the most serious confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah since the Israeli invasion, and has prompted fears of another damaging conflict.
Lebanese officials told the Associated Press that retaliatory Israeli shelling hit the border villages of Majidiyeh, Abbasiyeh and Kfar Chouba near the Shebaa Farms area, while Israeli jets were reportedly seen flying over southern Lebanon.
Hours after the attack, a spokesman for the Israeli army said that two soldiers had been killed and seven injured.
A spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon said that one of its peacekeepers had been killed in the south of the country — likely as a result of Israeli shelling.
In a statement released Wednesday, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for the attack on the convoy of several military vehicles in the Shebaa farms area of the Golan Heights — a strip of territory on the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon, most of which has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Lebanese militant group said that the attack was carried out by the “al-Quneitra Martyr's Brigade” — a reference to the area in the Golan Heights where Hezbollah member Jihad Mughniyeh and several other fighters were killed in an Israeli airstrike 10 days earlier.
"The convoy included Israeli artillery, an officer and several soldiers many of whom were injured," the statement read.
Tensions have been high in the Golan Heights since Israeli strike on Hezbollah on January 18. Jihad Mughniyeh, one of the casualties, was the son of assassinated high-ranking Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh, and his death prompted calls for revenge from the group;s supporters.
Two rockets fired from Syria hit the Israeli side of the Golan Heights on Tuesday, prompting Israel to respond by targeting Syrian army positions in the area.
Hezbollah is currently fighting in several parts of Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, a long-time backer of the group. It joined the fight across the border in 2012, and has since sent thousands of fighters to battle rebels aiming to overthrow Assad.
Hezbollah’s involvement has proved unpopular with many Lebanese, many of whom support the Syrian uprising. It has also brought the war closer to home, as jihadists have sought to hit Hezbollah targets in the country.
It remains unclear whether Wednesday’s confrontation will spill over into a wider conflict with Israel.
With Hezbollah already entangled in Syria’s brutal civil war, a new conflict with Israel would likely stretch the organization to its limits.
News of Wednesday’s operation was followed by the sound of celebratory gunfire in the southern suburbs of Beirut, an area that is home to a large number of Hezbollah supporters that was almost entirely destroyed during the 2006 Israeli invasion.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking after Wednesday’s attack, warned that the IDF was “ready to act with force on any front."
“I suggest that all those who are challenging us on our northern border, look at what happened in Gaza, not far from the city of Sderot,” referring to Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion of Gaza last year, a conflict that killed around 2,200 Gazans — most of them civilians.