By Laila Bassam and Jeffrey Heller
BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Hezbollah is preparing a “calculated strike” against its enemy Israel after drones crashed in Beirut but it seeks to avoid a new war, two sources allied to the heavily armed Shi’ite Muslim movement told Reuters on Tuesday.
A reaction “is being arranged in a way which wouldn’t lead to a war” that Hezbollah does not want, one of the sources said.
“The direction now is for a calculated strike, but how matters develop, that’s another thing.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier on Tuesday that Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah should “calm down” after Nasrallah said his Iranian-backed movement would respond to the crash of two drones in a Beirut suburb.
Israel has not claimed responsibility for the drones, including one that had exploded. But in a speech on Sunday, Nasrallah described it as the first Israeli attack in Lebanon since the two sides fought a month-long war in 2006.
“I say to the Israeli army on the border from tonight, stand guard. Wait for us one, two, three, four days,” Nasrallah said.
One of the drones blew up near the ground, causing some damage to Hezbollah’s media centre in the southern suburbs which it dominates. Israeli officials have declined to comment when asked if Israel was responsible.
“I heard what Nasrallah said. I suggest to Nasrallah to calm down. He knows well that Israel knows how to defend itself and to pay back its enemies,” Netanyahu said in a speech.
Precise details about where the drones were fired from have yet to emerge. Hezbollah has said the two drones were rigged with explosives after its experts took apart the first drone.
Asked if Israel attacked any ground targets in Lebanon in recent days, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told Israeli Army Radio:
“We of course did not respond to the accusations levelled at us. On their face, these things seem weird and intriguing. The media have reported this fact – that these are allegations that have no basis.”
Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council, which includes the president, prime minister and army commander, convened on Tuesday and said the Lebanese have “the right to defend themselves against any attack”.
Israel deems Hezbollah the biggest threat across its border. In their 2006 war, nearly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, died in Lebanon and 158 people died in Israel, mostly soldiers.
UNWRITTENUNDERSTANDING ON ATTACKS
Regional sources say that Israel and Hezbollah have formed an unwritten understanding that while they can exchange fire within Syria, any attacks within Lebanon or Israel are to be avoided lest they escalate to war.
Israel has grown alarmed by the rising influence of its Shi’ite foe Iran during the war in neighbouring Syria, where Tehran and Hezbollah provide military help to Damascus.
Tehran also has wide sway in Iraq, where a grouping of Iraq’s mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups, many of which are backed by Iran, have blamed recent blasts at their weapons depots and bases on the United States and Israel.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun said on Monday his country had a right to defend itself, likening Israeli drone strikes to a “declaration of war”.
Late on Saturday, Israeli air strikes killed two Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in Syria.
Israel, which regularly strikes Iranian-linked targets in Syria, said it hit a compound controlled by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds force, accusing it of planning killer drone attacks.
Netanyahu also issued warnings to Lebanon and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds force, which the Israeli leader said aspires to destroy Israel. “Watch what you say, and moreover be careful about what you do,” Netanyahu said.
Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that patrols the border with Israel, said the situation in the area remains quiet.
“UNIFIL continues to work with the parties to ensure that there are no misunderstandings or incidents that may endanger the cessation of hostilities,” Tenenti told Lebanon’s state news agency NNA, referring to a U.N. Security Council resolution that called for an end to the fighting in 2006.
In public comments during a visit on Sunday to Israel’s north, where he met army commanders, Netanyahu appeared to hold out the prospect of targeting Lebanon directly for attack if Hezbollah struck Israel.
“Any country that allows its territory to be used for aggression against Israel will face the consequences, and I repeat: the country will face the consequences,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Michael Georgy and Ellen Francis; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Peter Graff/Mark Heinrich)