Israel shelled southern Lebanon on Saturday after a rocket slammed into its territory in a tit-for-tat exchange of fire across their tense border, sources on both sides said.
Israeli rescue services said three people were injured when the rocket struck near the town of Maalot in the western Galilee region, triggering an immediate response from Israel.
“The Israeli army considers this a serious incident and believes it is the responsibility of the Lebanese government and the army to prevent this rocket fire,” an Israeli army spokesman said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora denounced the violence, which caused panic on both sides of the border, while the militant Shiite Muslim group Hezbollah denied any involvement.
“The Israeli shelling is an unacceptable and unjustified violation of Lebanese sovereignty,” Siniora said in a statement. “The rockets launched from Lebanon threaten the country’s security and stability and constitute a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.”
He was referring to the resolution that brought an end to the devastating 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon that left more than 1,200 people dead.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman reiterated his opposition to the country being used as a platform for the launch of rockets, saying he regards it as a challenge to Lebanon’s will.
A spokesman for Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency rescue service said three people were lightly wounded and another two were treated for shock.
Hezbollah spokesman Ibrahim Mussawi said the group had “nothing to do” with the attack, which was launched from a region largely controlled by Hezbollah and its Amal party ally.
The head of the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which patrols the border area, urged maximum restraint.
“The UNIFIL force commander Major General Claudio Graziano has been in contact with the senior commanders of the Lebanese and Israeli army with a view to ensuring that the cessation of hostilities is maintained,” UNIFIL spokeswoman Yasmina Bouziane said.
A Lebanese army spokesman said Israel fired eight artillery shells after two rockets were launched from a banana plantation near the village of El-Henniyeh, in the El-Qlayleh region about 10km from the border.
There were no reports of injuries in Lebanon.
One of the two rockets landed in Israel and the second apparently malfunctioned and landed in Lebanon, Bouziane said.
Panicked residents could be seen fleeing as Israel retaliated.
“My six-year-old girl was terrified,” said Hassan Faqih, 49, as he headed to the nearby coastal town of Tyre with his wife and two children. “We will stay in Tyre if the situation escalates.”
Last month, rockets were fired on two occasions from Lebanon into Israel in attacks that frayed nerves on both sides of the border and raised fears that Israel’s war on Gaza in December and last month could spread.
Hezbollah, which is backed by Syria and Iran, also denied involvement in those attacks.
The Lebanese government, in which Hezbollah is represented, has repeatedly stressed that it is committed to the UN-brokered truce that ended the war.
Earlier this month, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned that any attack by Hezbollah would prompt a tough response from Israel.
“I want to say here, on the border, that I don’t recommend that Hezbollah test us because the consequences would be more painful than one can imagine,” Barak said during a visit to the frontier area.
Maalot was the scene of an attack on a school by Palestinian gunmen in 1974 in which 26 people were killed, most of them children.