Israeli jets reportedly struck a Palestinian fighter base in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley early Monday, as the Lebanese president described earlier Israeli drone strikes as a “declaration of war”.
Local officials confirmed three rockets struck a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine base in the village of Qusaya on the Lebanese border, causing damage but no fatalities.
The area is known to have a network of cross-border underground tunnels often used by Iran-backed groups.
The strike came amid heightened tensions after two drones crashed in the Hizbollah-dominated Beirut suburb of Dahieh on Sunday morning. One exploded, causing severe damage to Hizbollah’s media centre and wounding three party members.
Hizbollah says it has identified the drones as Israeli.
Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave a theatrical speech on Sunday night, warning: “From tonight, I tell the Israeli army on the border, wait for our response, which may take place at any time on the border and beyond the border. Be prepared and wait for us.”
If Israel is responsible, the attacks mark the most serious Israeli incursion into Lebanese territory since the 2006 war between the two countries, in which 1,200 Lebanese and 158 Israelis were killed.
“What happened was similar to a declaration of war which allows us to resort to our right to defending our sovereignty,” said Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Twitter. He met with Lebanon’s UN Special Coordinator on Monday to discuss the situation.
Other Lebanese leaders, however, seem keen to find a diplomatic resolution. “The Lebanese government sees it best to avoid any sliding of the situation towards a dangerous escalation,” Prime Minister Saad Hariri told ambassadors of the UN Security Council.
A source inside the Lebanese Armed Forces told The Telegraph there would be no official statement as it is their judgement that the strike took place in Syria. Qusaya lies directly on Lebanon’s border with Syria; the army’s assessment that the attack was in Syrian territory may be a further attempt to de-escalate the situation.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Forces did not confirm either strike, saying “Israel does not comment on foreign reports.”
The United Nations called for "maximum restraint" by all parties.
Experts in the region say Monday’s border strike fits Israel’s pattern. While the group attacked was Palestinian, the strike appears to be part of Israel’s escalating conflict with Iran. This branch of the PLFP, General Command, is a splinter group which has been controlled by Iran since 2014. The group has since been used to run operations and facilitate arms transfers for Iran-backed Hizbollah in Syria.
“This particular base has been used as a training camp before, and Hizbollah dominates this area; it’s little Hizbollistan,” said Phillip Smyth, a specialist on Iranian proxy groups.
Some experts argue Israel is trying to goad Hizbollah into conflict, forcing them to fight on multiple fronts in both Syria and Lebanon.
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“My theory is that the Israelis are trying to goad Hizbollah into making a mistake and overreacting, so they can deal them a crippling blow,” said David Daoud, a research analyst on Lebanon and Hizbollah. “The Israelis traditionally have always needed some kind of justification to bring to America to say they need to go to war. Right now a war with Israel is not ideal timing for Hizbollah.”
“You get a lot of floral language, but the thing to remember about Hizbollah and the Iranians is they are all about building up, they’re all about patience,” Mr Smyth said. “For them it’s about hitting at the right time and the right place, when they’re ready.”