Who Fired on Israel from Lebanon?

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Omer Messinger / AFP / Getty

An Israeli man takes a picture of the roof of a nursing home in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya that was hit by a rocket fired from southern Lebanon

Lebanon's traditionally volatile border with Israel reprised its role as a bellwether of Israeli-Arab tensions Thursday morning as unknown militants fired at least three Katyusha rockets into Israel. It was the third such attack since the end of Israel's 2006 Lebanon war. The first two attacks involved a number of 107-mm Katyusha rockets, which have a range of seven miles, but were poorly executed — some did not explode, one did not make it across the border, and one did not even leave the launcher.

This time, however, the rocket attack showed a greater level of proficiency. Larger-caliber 122-mm rockets, with a range of 12 miles, were employed and carefully aimed at Nahariyah, a coastal town six miles south of the Lebanon border with a population of 50,000. Two Israeli civilians were slightly hurt when one of the rockets struck the roof of a nursing home. (See pictures of Heartbreak in the Middle East.)

The intention appears to be to keep Israel on edge along its northern border without eliciting a disproportionate reaction. Indeed, Israel's response to the Katyusha attack — firing a few artillery shells into a deserted valley in southern Lebanon — neatly fits within the finely calibrated rules that define violence and retaliation along the border, rules tacitly observed by both Israel and Hizballah, the radical Shi'ite group that dominates much of Lebanon. Israel's artillery shelling was a step up from no response at all — which was how Israel greeted the two earlier rocket attacks. But it was sufficiently limited to deny Hizballah a pretext to respond in kind. "I don't think it will get worse than that," says Timur Goksel, university lecturer in Beirut and former long-serving official with the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. "You don't open a second front with a couple of Katyusha rockets."

Since the Gaza war began on Dec. 27, the Israelis have kept one eye open on its northern border. "What is unexpected is why it took so long for rockets to be fired," says Goksel, voicing the view of analysts who had expected just such an incident since the onset of Israel's offensive against Hamas. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, although suspicion has fallen on militant Palestinian groups such as the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command (PFLP-GC), which may have acted with a nudge and a wink from Hizballah. Hizballah, Hamas and other Palestinian groups denied responsibility. "When Hizballah does something, it announces it and has no problem doing so," says Mohammed Fneish, minister of labor in Lebanon's national unity government and also a Hizballah lawmaker. (See pictures from inside Hizballah.)

The PFLP-GC, however, maintained a deliberately ambiguous stance. "It is not the time to say who is responsible; it is time to be united to confront the Israelis," Anwar Raja, PFLP-GC spokesman in Lebanon, told TIME. "We support the launching of rockets on Israel because of the massacre that is occurring in Gaza."

Israel has been wary of Hizballah coming to the aid of its Palestinian ally Hamas by opening up a fresh front. The Shi'ite group has done so in the past. In April 2002, during Israel's Defensive Shield operation to reoccupy the West Bank, Hizballah militants staged nearly daily assaults against Israeli military outposts in the Shebaa Farms, a strip of mountainside running along Lebanon's southeast border. This time around, however, Hizballah has confined its actions to fiery statements, speeches and demonstrations of support for the beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza. (See pictures of the heartbreak in Gaza.)

The powerful organization has little to gain from triggering a new conflict with Israel at this time, despite having given the Israeli military a bloody nose during the monthlong war in 2006. Lebanon heads to the polls in June for knife-edge parliamentary elections. If Hizballah and its allies in the opposition win and form the new parliamentary majority, it will greatly strengthen the organization's ability to deflect domestic and foreign demands that it dismantle its military wing. But with Lebanon still recovering from the 2006 conflict, few Lebanese, including its core Shi'ite support base, will thank Hizballah if it provokes a new war with Israel for the sake of its Hamas ally in Gaza.

With reporting by Rami Aysha / Beirut

See pictures of Israel's Deadly Assault on Gaza.