Lebanon News

Israeli strikes risked air ‘catastrophe’

KFAR KILA/BEIRUT/MOSCOW: Lebanon was on the verge of witnessing a “human catastrophe” after two civilian aircraft in its airspace were put in danger when Israeli warplanes carried out strikes on Syria from north Lebanon, Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri was informed Wednesday.

Two civilian planes “narrowly avoided a catastrophe” from the Israeli warplanes, caretaker Transport Minister Youssef Fenianos told Hariri in a phone call Wednesday.

Fenianos said the warplanes were flying in Lebanese airspace “during [Israel’s] assault on southern Damascus” Tuesday evening.

According to a statement from the minister’s office carried by the state-run National News Agency, Fenianos and Hariri agreed “to make decisions” protecting the country, and for Lebanon to lodge an “urgent complaint” at the U.N. Security Council against Israel.

Syria said via state media Tuesday that its air defenses shot down Israeli missiles near Damascus, while Israel said it was protecting itself from anti-aircraft fire.

Caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil called on Lebanon’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Amal Mudallali to file a complaint with the Security Council for “serious Israeli violations that threaten regional stability and pose a threat to the movement of civil aircrafts, nearly causing a major air disaster.”

In a statement released by his ministry, Bassil condemned the Israeli airstrikes that targeted Syria and “affirmed Syria’s right to the legitimate defense of its land and sovereignty.” The statement appealed to the international community and the Security Council to condemn the raids and the use of Lebanese airspace to “launch attacks against a brotherly country in clear violation of U.N. Resolution 1701.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based activist group, said Israeli missiles were launched from above Lebanese territory and targeted western and southwestern rural areas in Damascus.

“A number of missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah or Iranian forces,” the Observatory said.

Israel’s air force spent a noisy four hours or more in Lebanese airspace Tuesday night, people across the country said.

Residents of southern Lebanon said the Israeli planes flew at low altitudes and released flares. Near Mount Lebanon’s Chouf, residents heard a sonic boom from the planes.

People in Western Bekaa said they heard explosions as Syria intercepted the Israeli missiles.

Russia Wednesday condemned the Israeli strikes.

“The provocative actions of the Israeli air force ... directly threatened two airliners,” Moscow’s Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in statement.

He confirmed that the attack occurred over Lebanese territory and came as “two airliners, not from Russia, were preparing to land at the airports of Beirut and Damascus.”

Konashenkov said that restrictions were imposed on the use of Syrian government forces’ air defense systems “to prevent a tragedy,” and that the plane heading to Damascus was redirected to a Russian military air base in Hmeimim, in Latakia province.

The Russian Defense Ministry said three Syrian military personnel were injured in a strike that saw Israeli warplanes drop 16 bombs.

Of these, 14 were destroyed by Syrian defense systems, according to the ministry.

A source from Beirut’s airport told The Daily Star that no planes belonging to Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, were flying at the time of the incident.

The Russian Foreign Ministry also described the airstrikes as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty.

“We are very concerned by the attacks and how they were made.

“This is a gross violation of the sovereignty of Syria,” a ministry statement said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised his country’s air force shortly after Russia’s criticism.

He also repeated his frequent pledge that the Jewish state would not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, and said the U.S. withdrawal from Syria would have no effect on Israeli activities there.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony Wednesday for a new crop of Israeli air force pilots, Netanyahu did not directly comment on the alleged airstrike, but said Israel was continually acting against Iran “including these days.”

He claimed the Israeli air force’s capabilities were unmatched and could reach arenas “near and far, very far.”

This is the first such attack since U.S. President Donald Trump announced last week the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

Experts say that Israel will be greatly affected by the U.S. pullout, as it will leave the area open to Iran and its partners to develop their military capacity.

Separately in south Lebanon Wednesday, Israeli forces had to halt the construction of a cement border wall opposite Lebanon’s Kfar Kila after the Lebanese Army disputed several points planned for the wall.

The incident occurred hours after dozens of Israeli forces deployed in the area after Syria shot down the Israeli missiles.

The development came as a separate Israeli operation continued nearby to block alleged “Hezbollah tunnels” with cement.

The cement-pouring operation, which began Monday night, was at least the second to be carried out by Israel since the country rolled out Operation Northern Shield on Dec. 4 to find and destroy what it called “Hezbollah attack tunnels.” A team from the Lebanese Army’s Geographic Affairs Unit was seen standing behind a border fence and marking disputed areas just beyond it.

The Army then informed UNIFIL personnel on the ground, who in turn ordered Israeli soldiers to move back 7 meters behind the planned course of the cement wall.

A Lebanese military source said the Army was in contact with the U.N. peacekeeping mission in southern Lebanon to uncover additional details.

Earlier this year, new construction began along the Lebanese border for an Israeli wall equipped with cameras.

It followed earlier construction in 2012 of a wall around the Israeli town of Metula, on the Lebanese border.

Israel has said all portions of the wall will be on its side of the Blue Line, the U.N.-established cease-fire demarcation put in place after its withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. Lebanon disputes this, saying some sections will cut into its territory.

The Daily Star witnessed dozens of soldiers positioned beyond the Blue Line Wednesday morning opposite areas in the Lebanese villages of Adaisseh and Kfar Kila in the Marjayoun governorate.

The Israeli army Wednesday evening said it had detonated an alleged Hezbollah “attack tunnel” from the southern border-town of Aita Shaab.

Reports of the detonation came after people in the small town reported Israel announcing via loudspeaker that it would carry out the procedure.

The Israeli army’s Arabic spokesperson Avichay Adraee claimed in a video shared on his Twitter account that Hezbollah was putting the Shiite inhabitants of the south in danger with the tunnels. Adraee said Wednesday that the tunnel had been discovered the day before.

This tunnel would be the fifth that Israel has announced it has discovered since launching Operation Northern Shield.

UNIFIL has meanwhile confirmed the existence of four other tunnels, two of which it said it confirmed had crossed the Blue Line, though it did not say who had dug them. UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti told the NNA that UNIFIL was on the ground Wednesday and was “working with the parties [involved] to ensure stability.”

Netanyahu said the operation to block the “Hezbollah tunnels” was “almost over,” in remarks that Adraee tweeted late Tuesday.

Hezbollah has not commented on the allegations. - With agencies

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 27, 2018, on page 1.

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