Israel's northern border region had braced over the past 10 days for a Hezbollah response to the Israeli missile strike that killed some of its senior personnel on Jan. 18. The Lebanese Shia movement's retaliation came Wednesday, as its fighters fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli military vehicle near the border with Lebanon, setting off a protracted exchange of fire. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven wounded in the clashes, and a Spanish soldier serving with a U.N. peacekeeping mission was reportedly killed by Israeli fire.
Israel responded to the rocket attack by firing shells across the border into southern Lebanon, according to the Lebanese army. Hezbollah released a statement shortly after the strike, claiming responsibility.
"11.25 a.m. this morning, al-Quneitra Martyr's group targeted an Israeli convoy with specialized heavy duty rockets in the occupied Lebanese Shebaa Farms area. The convoy included Israeli artillery, an officer and several soldiers, many of whom were injured," the statement read.
A Lebanese army spokesman said that the missile fired at a military vehicle did not originate from Lebanese territory and that retaliatory rockets from the Israelis were falling randomly along the border.
The strike on the convoy occurred at Shebaa Farms, a small strip of occupied land at the intersection of the Lebanon-Syria border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
An Israeli military source said helicopters were deployed after the anti-tank missile struck the vehicle and the army was checking whether there was an attempt to abduct one of the soldiers.
On Tuesday at least two rockets from Syria hit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and Israel responded with artillery fire.
The Shebaa Farms attack appears to be in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike on a Hezbollah convoy near the Golan Heights on Jan. 18, in which Jihad Mughniyeh — a commander of the group and the son of its late military leader Imad Mughniyeh — and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Gen. Mohammed Allahdadi were killed.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran, and the Revolutionary Guards vowed to avenge the deaths. Since that strike, troops and civilians in northern Israel and the Golan Heights have been on heightened alert, and Israel has deployed Iron Dome rocket interceptors near the border with Syria.
Israel and Hezbollah last clashed in a 34-day war in 2006, when an Israeli ground invasion failed to dislodge the Lebanese militia. Analysts maintain that both sides have good reason to avoid another full-blown confrontation, but the exchanges of fire in the past 10 days highlight how quickly the situation can escalate.
Al Jazeera and wire services