BEIRUT: Lebanon's Hezbollah fired a volley of rockets at Israeli positions on Friday (Aug 6), prompting retaliatory shelling, in an escalation between the Iran-backed Shiite movement and the Jewish state.
A flare-up along the border this week has seen Israel carry out its first air strikes on Lebanese territory in seven years and Hezbollah claim a direct rocket attack on Israeli territory for the first time since 2019.
The exchanges coincide with rising tensions between Iran and Israel since a deadly attack on an Israeli-managed tanker in the Gulf of Oman last week.
Following Friday morning's exchange Israel said it did "not wish to escalate to a full war", as the United Nations peacekeeping force in the border region, UNIFIL, warned of "a very dangerous situation" and called on parties to "cease fire and maintain calm".
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz urged the United States "to demand from the Lebanese government an end to rocket launches at Israel".
Hezbollah said it fired dozens of rockets at open ground near Israeli positions in the disputed Shebaa Farms border district.
It said the attack came in response to Israeli air strikes on south Lebanon on Thursday that were the first since 2014.
An AFP correspondent in south Lebanon said he heard several explosions and saw smoke rising from around the Shebaa Farms.
Israel said 19 rockets were fired, six of which hit Israeli ground.
Three fell short while the others were intercepted by air defences, it said.
A video released by the Israeli army showed vapour trails in the sky. The military said it was "striking the launch sources in Lebanon" but did not elaborate.
ROCKET LAUNCHER SEIZED
UNIFIL reported an "artillery response from Israel in the Shebaa Farms area", following the Hezbollah rocket attack.
An AFP correspondent in south Lebanon reported artillery fire by Israeli forces on the Shebaa Farms and outside the town of Kfarchouba.
The Shebaa Farms district is claimed by Lebanon but the UN regards it as part of the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967 and unilaterally annexed in 1981.
Israeli army spokesman, Amnon Shefler, played down the prospects of all-out war with Hezbollah.
"We do not wish to escalate to a full war, yet of course we are very prepared for that," he said after Friday's exchange.
Hezbollah's deputy head, Naeem Qassem, said the group was committed to responding to any attack on Lebanon and would be "prepared" if needed.
But "we do not believe things are headed towards an escalation," he added.
In the south Lebanon district of Hasbaya, Druze villagers stopped a truck carrying a multiple rocket launcher used by Hezbollah in Friday's attack, a military source told AFP.
A video widely shared on social media showed angry residents blocking the truck's passage and accusing Hezbollah of endangering civilian lives by launching rockets from close to residential areas.
Hezbollah said the truck was stopped after the group's attack but that the rockets were fired far from residential areas.
The Lebanese army said it arrested the four people who fired the rockets and seized the launcher after it was intercepted by villagers.
'DEFEND ISRAELI CITIZENS'
There has been a series of unclaimed rocket attacks from Lebanon towards Israel since Wednesday, except for Friday's salvo.
Before Thursday, Israel's last air strikes on Lebanon dated back to 2014 when warplanes struck territory near the Syrian border.
They had not targeted Hezbollah's south Lebanon strongholds since the militants fought a devastating conflict with Israel in 2006.
But Israel has repeatedly warned it will not allow a power vacuum and a deepening economic crisis in Beirut to undermine security on its border.
Lebanon is grappling with an economic crisis that the World Bank says is one of the world's worst since the mid-19th century.
Despite international pressure, political leaders have failed to form a government since the outgoing cabinet resigned after a deadly blast last year at the capital's port.
Israel will "continue to operate against Hezbollah or any of its proxies in order to defend Israeli citizens", Gantz told his US counterpart on Friday.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air strikes in war-torn Syria since 2011, including targeting Hezbollah fighters allied to the Damascus regime.