BEIRUT, Lebanon – Israeli jets blasted a Palestinian militant group’s base a few miles outside the Lebanese capital Beirut on Wednesday, hours after rockets fired from Lebanon hit a northern Israeli border town.
In their deepest strike into Lebanon in 18 months, the Israeli planes attacked a base of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a small, Syrian-backed group that has been fighting the Jewish state for decades. Two guerrillas were lightly wounded, the group said.
Later Wednesday, Israeli warplanes flew low over southern Lebanon and the western Bekaa Valley in apparent reconnaissance flights that drew anti-aircraft fire from the Lebanese army, Lebanese security officials said.
Witnesses said warplanes roared over the PFLP-GC guerrilla base at Naameh, a hilltop base overlooking the Mediterranean five miles south of Beirut. They heard two booms.
The Israeli army said the attack was in response to rockets fired at the northern Israel town of Kiryat Shmona on Tuesday night. It said it views such attacks with “extreme severity” and holds Lebanon responsible.
The PFLP-GC commander in Lebanon, Anwar Raja, denied the group was responsible.
The top general for northern Israel, Maj. Gen. Udi Adam, vowed to retaliate against future attacks from Lebanon and did not rule out targeting installations in Syria.
“If Kiryat Shmona residents don’t sleep quietly, then the residents of Beirut won’t sleep quietly. This is an unequivocal message,” Adam told The Associated Press.
Asked whether Israel would also bomb Syrian targets as it has done in the past when rockets have been fired by Damascus-backed groups, Adam replied: “I won’t answer that … We reserve the right to retaliate anyway we see fit.”
The PFLP-GC’s commander, Ahmed Jibril, whose group refuses to recognize Israel, has his headquarters in Damascus. But his group maintains military bases in Lebanon, where it is accused of taking orders from Syria to support the Syrian agenda in Lebanon.
Adam, the head of the army’s northern command which oversees the tense Israel-Lebanon border, said Israel will not allow Katyusha rocket fire into northern Israel to become a routine part of daily life again. Such rocket attacks were common before Israel ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon in May 2000.
There were no reports of injuries from the three rockets that hit Kiryat Shmona but some property was damaged.
Lebanese army troops at a checkpoint near Naameh confirmed the airstrike and sealed off the area.
Raja told the AP that two guerrillas were slightly wounded in the strike, which caused “limited” material damage and shattered the windows of nearby houses.
The PFLP-GC base consists of a maze of concrete fortified tunnels in a hill. An AP photographer at the site said the strike targeted an entrance to a tunnel, leaving it almost blocked by stones and rubble.
Israeli warplanes struck the same base in June 2004 in retaliation for a rocket attack on an Israeli naval boat. Jets also staged a “mock raid” — low runs without dropping bombs — on the same base a month later.
Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and the mainstream Fatah Palestinian faction also denied involvement in the rocket attacks.
Last month, Israeli fighter jets attacked a command post of the Hezbollah guerrilla group in south Lebanon — a day after Hezbollah rocket and mortar attacks wounded 11 Israeli soldiers and damaged a house in an Israeli border community.
While fighting on the Lebanon-Israel border has dropped since the Israeli withdrawal, the area remains tense and Hezbollah frequently targets Israeli troops in the disputed Chebaa Farms area. But attacks on Israelis also were blamed on radical Palestinian groups, who remains active in southern Lebanon.
Relations between Lebanon and Syria have been strained in recent months. The Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon in April after international pressure in the aftermath of the February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In October, Lebanese troops deployed around the PFLP-GC bases at Naameh and in the mountains along the Syrian border in an attempt to stop them receiving weapons and reinforcements from Syria. The government feared the arms would be used to stir up trouble. Troops subsequently eased their blockade but maintain a presence near the bases.
The PFLP-GC gained notoriety with a string of bloody incidents since it was formed in 1968: It has hijacked an Israeli airliner, machine-gunned another at Zurich’s airport, and blown up a Tel Aviv-bound Swissair plane, killing all 47 aboard.
In one of its spectacular attacks on Israel, a PFLP-GC fighter on a hang-glider flew into northern Israel in 1987 and killed six soldiers before being shot dead.