BEIRUT – Hezbollah’s leader was quoted by two Lebanese newspapers Monday as warning that his Iranian-backed militants will strike Israel’s largest city of Tel Aviv with missiles from Lebanon – if the Jewish state attacked the guerrillas’ south Beirut stronghold in a new war.
The papers – As-Safir and Al-Akhbar, both with close ties to Hezbollah – said Sheik Hassan Nasrallah made the threat during a weekend closed meeting with a group of Lebanese expatriates.
His comments follow a recent incident at the Lebanon-Israel border, which has been mostly calm for three years.
Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war in the summer of 2006 that killed around 1,200 people in Lebanon – mostly civilians – and 160 in Israel.
During that fighting, Hezbollah slammed about 4,000 rockets into Israel, while Israel bombed Hezbollah’s strongholds in southern and eastern Lebanon and its southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, the group’s headquarters.
Israel destroyed dozens of Dahiyeh buildings, including Nasrallah’s offices. Hezbollah’s retaliation deep inside Israel did not reach coastal Tel Aviv. Nasrallah warned then his guerrillas would strike Israel’s largest city only if Israeli forces attacked Beirut proper.
During the 2006 conflict, the Lebanese capital was largely spared and Israel’s bombardment failed to stem Hezbollah’s missile strikes on Israeli territory.
Nasrallah’s latest threat indicates any future conflict could have a wider range.
“The former equation has changed. Now it will be Dahiyeh against Tel Aviv, not Beirut against Tel Aviv,” Nasrallah was quoted as saying.
He warned that if the Israelis hits Beirut, “there will be a more painful equation for the Israelis.” The papers did not elaborate.
A Hezbollah media official contacted by The Associated Press could not confirm the reports, which is not unusual for the group.
Hezbollah is believed to have longer-range missiles that can reach Tel Aviv. Nasrallah recently said Hezbollah has replenished its stock since the 2006 war and has more than 30,000 rockets.
The reclusive Nasrallah rarely appears in public and makes statements from a secret hiding place, because he fears Israeli assassination.
A July 14 explosion at a suspected Hezbollah arms depot near the Israeli border raised tensions. Hezbollah said the blast came from “leftover” ordnance collected after Israel withdrew from a south Lebanon border strip in 2000.
Meanwhile, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon met Monday with Lebanese army officers and local authorities, including a Hezbollah lawmaker, in an attempt to defuse tensions between the force and villagers.
The force, known as UNIFIL, has called the explosion at the Hezbollah arms depot a “serious violation” of a U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war. When peacekeepers attempted to investigate the blast, they were faced by crowds who threw stones at them, lightly injuring 14 soldiers and damaging vehicles.
UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Claudio Graziano stressed the importance of maintaining good relations with the people of south Lebanon.
“The entire command of UNIFIL, down to every soldier, is committed to upholding and strengthening the excellent relationship we have with the people with whom we share our daily lives here in south Lebanon,” Graziano said in a statement after the meeting held in the southern town of Tibnin.