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Israel, Hezbollah engage in fighting along Lebanon border

Israeli forces on Monday exchanged fire with Hezbollah militants along the volatile Israeli-Lebanese frontier, as Israeli civilians living in the area were ordered to remain indoors amid the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies in nearly a year.

Israeli forces have braced for an attack after launching deadly airstrike in Syria last week

Smoke rises from the disputed Chebaa Farms area as seen from Ibl al-Saqi village in southern Lebanon. Israel and Hezbollah issued conflicting statements about the hostilities on Monday. (Aziz Taher/Reuters)

Israeli forces on Monday exchanged fire with Hezbollah militants along the volatile Israeli-Lebanese frontier, as Israeli civilians living in the area were ordered to remain indoors amid the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies in nearly a year.

The fighting occurred in an area known as Chebaa Farms, which was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and is claimed by Lebanon. Residents of southern Lebanon near the border reported Israeli shelling that continued for more than an hour.

The fighting came as Israel was on heightened alert for a possible attack by Hezbollah, after an Israeli airstrike in Syria killed a Hezbollah militant last week. Israel has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Syria in recent years, targeting what it says are Iranian weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah fought to a stalemate in a month-long war in Lebanon in 2006.

Israeli army spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the military was "able to successfully thwart an attempt to infiltrate into Israel" by a group of armed militants.

"We know for certain that they were armed and that they crossed the Blue Line into Israel," Conricus told reporters, referring to the line delineating Israel's frontier with Lebanon.

UN force urges restraint

Conricus said Israeli troops opened fire on the militants after they entered Israeli territory, and that the gunmen returned fire. He said no Israeli forces were wounded in the exchange, but could not comment on the condition of the militants, who fled the scene.

Hezbollah said its fighters were not involved in any fighting along the border with Israel.

In a statement following the clashes, the group said all claims by Israeli media about an infiltration attempt by Hezbollah into Israel "are not true at all, and are attempts to invent illusive victories."

Hezbollah said the group's retaliation for its member killed by an Israeli strike in Syria "is definitely coming, and the Zionists should remain waiting for the punishment for their crimes."

The group said it would not remain silent after Israel's cross-border shelling Monday, which Hezbollah said damaged a home in the southern Lebanese village of Hibariyeh.

The United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, said its commander, Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, was in contact with both parties to assess the situation and decrease tensions.

"He urges maximum restraint," the UNIFIL statement said.

Israeli soldiers are shown Monday in front of an Iron Dome defence system battery, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the Hula Vally in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon. (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images)

Speaking in parliament, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the government was closely following developments in the north.

"The military is prepared for every scenario," he said. "We operate in all the arenas for Israel's defence — close to our borders and far from our borders."

Netanyahu and Defence Minister Benny Gantz cut short meetings in parliament to meet military commanders at army headquarters in Tel Aviv.

The exchange of fire comes a day after Gantz met with army brass near the country's northern frontier. Following his visit, Israel released a statement saying a military drone had crashed in southern Lebanon.

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