JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli attack helicopters struck observation posts of the militant Hezbollah group along the Lebanon border overnight after shots were fired at Israeli troops operating in the area, the military said Wednesday.
Israel has been bracing for a possible attack by the Iran-backed Lebanese militants since an Israeli airstrike killed a Hezbollah fighter in neighboring Syria on July 20. Israeli troops have also traded fire in recent weeks with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza.
The military said no Israeli forces were wounded, and there were no reports of casualties in Lebanon. Earlier, Israeli troops fired flares and smoke shells along the heavily guarded border. Hezbollah-run Al-Manar TV reported that two homes were damaged by the shelling.
The military also ordered civilians in nearby communities to shelter in place and blocked roads near the border. Those restrictions were lifted early Wednesday. The incident took place near the northern Israeli town of Manara.
Hezbollah has vowed to retaliate for the killing of its fighters. On July 27, the Israeli military said it had thwarted an infiltration attempt by Hezbollah in a battle that raged for more than an hour. Neither side reported any casualties and Hezbollah denied involvement.
“Israel views with utmost gravity the shooting at our forces by Hezbollah," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who held consultations overnight with senior officials.
"I suggest that Hezbollah not try the crushing force of Israel. Hezbollah is once again endangering Lebanon with its aggression.”
A Hezbollah spokesman declined to comment.
Another member of the group, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media, said no Hezbollah positions were hit. He said shrapnel hit a structure belonging to Green Without Borders, an environmental NGO that Israel says is an arm of Hezbollah, allegations denied by the militants.
The Hezbollah member would neither confirm nor deny that an attack had been launched from Lebanon.
Lebanon’s Higher Defense Council, the country’s top defense body, said it would file a complaint to the U.N. Security Council “over Israel’s aggressions on Lebanon last night."
Tensions have also risen between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip. Hamas has orchestrated a wave of incendiary balloons and rocket attacks in recent weeks as it presses Israel to ease a blockade imposed on the group after it seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
Israel has responded with a wave of airstrikes and closed Gaza's only commercial crossing, forcing the territory's sole power plant to shut down last week and leaving most of the territory's 2 million residents with just four hours of electricity a day.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and several skirmishes over the last 13 years. Israel and Western countries consider both Hezbollah and Hamas to be terrorist groups.
“We will continue to work to restore complete quiet to our southern region,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said. “In the north, we will not allow (Hezbollah leader Hassan) Nasrallah, who tried to harm our country but met with an alert and prepared army, we will not let him harm our soldiers or our country.”
Israel considers Hezbollah to be its toughest and most immediate threat. After battling Israel to a stalemate during a monthlong war in 2006, Hezbollah is believed to be far stronger today.
Israeli officials estimate that Hezbollah possesses some 130,000 rockets and missiles capable of striking virtually anywhere in Israel. The group also has gained valuable battlefield experience by fighting alongside Iranian troops backing the forces of President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Israel, which considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in Syria it says were meant to stop Iran from transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah. It has warned that a future war with Hezbollah would exact a devastating toll on Lebanon, which is currently mired in a severe economic crisis.
At the United Nations, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday the U.N. mission in Lebanon had “detected mortars and artillery shells," as well as intense drone activity overnight in the border area. He said the mission “launched an investigation and calls on both parties to fully cooperate" with the probe.
Associated Press writera Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Edith M. Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.