Israel buries soldiers, says Hezbollah doesn't want conflict

Israel buries soldiers, says Hezbollah doesn't want conflict

JERUSALEM - Israel was on Thursday to bury two soldiers killed in a Hezbollah missile strike that triggered Israeli fire on southern Lebanon, raising tensions between the bitter enemies to their highest in years.

The Israeli-Lebanese border was calm on Thursday however, and Israeli officials played down the threat of a new war with Hezbollah.

In an unusual declaration, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said Hezbollah had passed on a message through the UN mission in southern Lebanon saying it did not want a further escalation.

"We have received a message via UNIFIL that from their point of view the incident is over," he told public radio.

Analysts say neither side seems keen for a repeat of the devastating Israel-Hezbollah conflict in 2006 and any response is likely to be limited.

The two soldiers were killed when Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at a military convoy in an Israeli-occupied area on the border with Lebanon.

Israeli forces responded to the attack -- which came in retaliation for an Israeli strike on the Golan Heights that killed senior Hezbollah members -- with artillery, tank and air fire on several villages in southern Lebanon.

There were no reports of local Lebanese casualties, but a 36-year-old Spanish peacekeeper with UNIFIL was killed in the exchange of fire.

Mourners gather in Jerusalem

In Israel, farmers were tending their apple orchards close to the border fence, an AFP photographer said. Schools had reopened as had the Mount Hermon ski resort in the Israeli-occupied portion of the Golan Heights.

In the Lebanese border village of Majidiya, residents were collecting spent artillery shells from Wednesday's strikes, an AFP photographer said.

At the local UN peacekeeping base a blackened concrete tower could be seen with part of its wall blown out. A Spanish flag was flying at half-mast.

Hundreds of mourners gathered at the Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem for the burial of one of the killed soldiers, 25-year-old captain Yochai Kalangel.

Sobbing relatives greeted the mourners, many wearing the purple beret of his Givati (Highland) Brigade, as a large Israeli flag flew overhead.

The other dead soldier, 20-year-old Staff Sergeant Dor Chaim Nini, was to be buried later in the town of Shtulim in south-central Israel.

Questions have been raised in Israel about why the soldiers were travelling in unarmoured vehicles in the volatile area.

Israel said it considered Wednesday's attack the "most severe" it had faced since 2006, when its war with Hezbollah killed more than 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and some 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks with top security brass late Wednesday, warning afterwards: "Those behind today's attack will pay the full price."

Chances of war 'very slim'

Still, analysts said that Israel, fresh from its summer war with Hamas in Gaza and heading for a general election in March, was not eager for a full-scale conflict with Hezbollah.

"Hezbollah has 100,000 rockets, compared with the 10,000 of Hamas," said analyst Boaz Ganor of the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Centre.

"The human cost of such a war would be enormous and no Israeli leader will be pro-active in this direction," he said.

Hezbollah is meanwhile deeply involved in Syria's civil war, fighting with President Bashar al-Assad's forces against Sunni rebels.

"The chances (of an escalation) are very slim, almost none, because none of the sides has an interest in moving to a big operation or a small war," Yaakov Amidror, a former major general and security advisor of Israel, told AFP.

"Hezbollah is very busy in Syria, the last thing that it needs is a second front," he said.

Tension in the area had been building before Wednesday's attack, especially after an Israeli air strike on the Syrian sector of the Golan Heights killed six Hezbollah fighters and an Iranian general on January 18.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had earlier threatened to retaliate against Israel for its repeated strikes on targets in Syria and boasted the Shiite militant movement was stronger than ever.

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