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LEBANON: Did rockets hit Israel or not?

January 15, 2009 |  9:54 am


Oops, they did it again.

For the second time in less than a week, Lebanon and Israel exchanged rocket-fire across the border between them agitating worries that the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip could widen.

Officials in Lebanon said that an unknown group fired at least three rockets from southern Lebanon onto the “occupied Palestinian land” around 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday. They said that the Israeli military fired several rockets in response.

Local newspapers on both sides reported today that the rockets -- well, at least most of them  -- launched from southern Lebanon actually fell on the Lebanese side of the border and not inside Israeli territory.

The Israeli side of the story as told by the local Haaretz newspaper said that the Israeli police declared first that the rockets had struck open areas in Kiryat Shimona, in northern Israel. The newspaper added that after combing the area, it concluded that two of the three rockets exploded inside Lebanon. There were no reports of damage or injuries in either volley.

The Lebanese Assafir daily claimed that there was no evidence that any rockets fired from Lebanon actually hit Israel. They based their report on unnamed officials from the Lebanese army and international peacekeepers stationed in a buffer zone since a devastating 2006 war between and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah and Israel.

The newspaper accused the Israelis of “overplaying” the incident and firing shells unto different spots inside Lebanon while they provided no images of any artillery landing in Israel.

A statement released today by the United Nations peacekeepers said there were no confirmations that rockets impacted inside Israel. The statement said that UN troops discovered fragments of two rockets on Lebanese territory near the border with Israel. 

After the incident, Israel sent telephone warnings to residents of southern Lebanon. According to a
correspondent with Agence France-Presse who received the message, one of the warnings said: 

“Launching rockets from southern Lebanon against innocents in northern Israel harms your own interests ... If you allow groups like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah to launch rockets against innocents in northern Israel as you did before, remember what happened to you last time.”

But neither side seems to be after an escalation.

Hours after the conflagration, UN and Lebanese Army troops discovered and defused another three rockets prepared for launch near the village of Hibbariyeh at the northern edge of the southern buffer zone.

Israeli fighter jets raced across the skies of southern Lebanon during the morning, Lebanon's official National News Agency, or NNA, reported.

Maj. Gen. Claudio Graziano, commander of the 13,000-troop United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon, or UNIFIL, contacted both Lebanese and Israeli officials and “urged them to maintain maximum restraint,” said Yasmina Bouziane, a UNIFIL spokesperson.

Lebanese information minister Tarek Mitri said the incident “jeopardizes the national interest and the Lebanese consensus against dragging Lebanon and giving an excuse to Israel to harm Lebanon's national interest," according to NNA.

A similar exchange of rocket-fire last week was attributed to one of the many Palestinian groups based in southern Lebanon and not to Hezbollah, which is believed to have a vast arsenal of medium-range rockets. About 400,000 Palestinians, refugees from Israel and their descendants, live in Lebanon, half in semi-autonomous camps scattered throughout the country.

In last week's attack, attention turned to a small Syrian-backed splinter group called the Popular Front for the Liberation Palestine General Command, which refused to disavow a barrage of rockets that injured Israelis in a nursing home. But a spokesman for the group today denied it was behind the recent spate of attacks.

"Accusations that we launched the rockets are totally unfounded,” said Hamzeh Beshtawi, spokesman for the group. “We are not responsible for what happened. At the same time we cannot condemn any attack that hurts the enemy.”

All the rockets fired and found in Lebanon today were 107 millimeter Katyushas, which have a range of six miles and are typically associated with Palestinian groups, a military official in Beirut said on condition of anonymity.

“I think these attacks are still at the level of sending messages,” the military official said. "With the presence of thousands of UNFIL troops and Lebanese soldiers it is difficult to envisage a scenario of a serious escalation on the [northern] front that quickly."

Israel has in the past pinned responsibility for rocket fire on the Lebanese government. Lebanese and UNIFIL troops have stepped up patrols as regional tensions simmer over the ongoing war in Gaza. “It is impossible to have a full control over all the hills and valleys from which these rockets could be launched,” said the military official.

-- Raed Rafei and Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Spanish U.N. peacekeepers and Lebanese army soldiers stand next a rocket set to be fired, on a wooden platform north of the Israeli border in southern Lebanon, on Wednesday. Credit: Lutfallah Daher / Associated Press

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