Israeli PM deflects report on Lebanon airstrikes
JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel's prime minister on Tuesday refused to confirm whether his country carried out an airstrike along the Syrian-Lebanon border, but said he would do everything possible to protect the security of Israeli citizens.
Benjamin Netanyahu delivered his vague answer hours after Lebanon's state news agency reported that Israeli aircraft carried out two airstrikes late Monday. While Israel's military refused to comment, Israel has carried out similar airstrikes in the past on suspected weapons shipments believed to be bound from Syria to Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon.
At a news conference with the visiting German chancellor, Angela Merkel, he said Israel's policy is not to discuss what others claim it did.
"We do all that is needed to protect the security of Israeli citizens," he said.
Israel and Hezbollah fought a monthlong war in 2006 that ended in a stalemate. Israeli officials believe Hezbollah has restocked its arsenal with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, some of which are capable of striking virtually anywhere in the Jewish state.
Although Israel has refrained from taking sides in the Syrian civil war, Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to take action to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining "game changing" weapons from its ally Syria. Past Israeli airstrikes are believed to have targeted Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles and guided missiles from Iran. Israel has never confirmed the airstrikes.
Lebanon's National News Agency said the air raids took place near Nabi Sheet, a remote village in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley. The agency did not say what was targeted in the attack. The porous border is frequently used by fighters and smugglers to move people and weapons between Lebanon and Syria. Hezbollah has a strong presence in the area. Arab media reports said Hezbollah had suffered casualties, though neither the group nor the Lebanese military confirmed an airstrike had actually taken place.
Earlier this week, Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, accused Iran, a key backer of Syria and Hezbollah, of "handing out torches to the pyromaniacs." He spoke during a tour of the Golan Heights, a strategic area near Syria and Lebanon.
"Right now we're in the Golan Heights and it seems quiet and peaceful. I suggest that everyone keeps in mind that underneath this quiet, a storm is brewing - day, night and in every setting," Gantz said. "We have very advanced abilities to deal with the security challenges in this region. This comes alongside improving response at the operational level, and acting speedily in every sphere: air, sea, ground, intelligence and all the support systems that work with them."
Eyal Ben-Reuven, a former deputy head of the Israeli military's Northern Command, said he doubted Hezbollah would retaliate since it had its hands full fighting the Syrian civil war. Having said that, he said Hezbollah was still a dangerous foe and it was imperative that Israel maintain its ability to operate freely in the skies and in the seas and block any more advanced weapons from reaching Hezbollah.
"Israel has always stayed as the main objective for Hezbollah and Iran," he said. "A terror organization gets these kinds of capabilities not for deterrence, but for acts. This is the difference between states and organization. This is something that we have to keep in our hands to prevent this kind of transfer of game-changing weapons," he said.