Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Three Israeli soldiers were killed and four others injured in southern Lebanon on Monday, a day after the number two man in the Israeli-allied South Lebanon Army (SLA) was assassinated.
The Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hizb'allah militia claimed responsibility for both attacks with a spokesman saying from Beirut that gunmen had used automatic weapons and anti-tank rockets in the attack on the Israeli unit.
Tensions in Lebanon, routinely attributed by analysts to Syrian attempts to turn up the heat against Israel, have been building for a week. Last Tuesday, a 24-year-old staff sergeant was killed by an anti-tank missile. He was the first Israeli fatality in the area since last August.
On Sunday, Colonel Akel Hashem, the man slated to succeed the aging leader of the mostly Christian SLA, was killed in a bomb blast as he worked on the family farm. His son, a friend and his housekeeper were not injured in the blast.
Hizb'allah subsequently launched rocket attacks against Israeli and SLA positions in the security zone, and Israel bombarded terrorist strongholds in the central sector of the "security zone," the IDF spokesman's office told CNSNews.com.
Israel has pledged to punish those responsible for killing the 48-year-old Hashem, who was widely respected in Israel and favored to take over the militia from General Antoine Lahad, 71, when he retired.
"[The SLA] lost a good fighter. There's no doubt about it, it's a real setback for them," Salam Eid, news director of Middle East Television based in the security zone, told CNSNews.com.
"He had a lot of achievements in the SLA. He was very tough, working day and night [to combat terrorism]."
Eid said he believed the SLA would regain its strength and continue the mutual battle it and Israel were waging against terrorism.
Hizb'allah fighters celebrated the assassination by handing out candy to passing motorists on Sunday. The group later released video footage showing the remotely-detonated blast which killed Hashem instantly.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak told reporters on Sunday "this incident emphasized the potential for a deterioration in the atmosphere in Lebanon."
"We will do everything so that those who harmed Akel Hashem will receive their just punishment, and I expect that the situation won't deteriorate," Barak added.
Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh met SLA commanders on Sunday to try to calm tensions. If the SLA responds with rocket attacks, which could wound Lebanese civilians, northern Israel is also likely to come under fire from Hizb'allah.
Sneh pledged that the offenders would not go "unpunished," but he said that Israel would choose the "time and place." He also said the fact Syria allowed the attack to occur showed it was not really interested in the peace process.
"This reflects their real intentions toward peace," Sneh said. "They aren't interested in success of peace talks with Israel."
Eid said the SLA officers had received a "real promise" from Israeli officials who visited since the incident that both Hizb'allah and the power behind it "will suffer."
Israel warned Syria that an escalation of attacks in South Lebanon would not be tolerated and would threaten the future of the already frozen Israeli-Syrian talks. Sponsored by Iran, Hizb'allah operates from Syrian-controlled territory, Israel says, with the full consent of Damascus.
Israel had hoped Syria would restrain Hizb'allah and other terrorist organizations as a goodwill gesture after Israeli-Syrian peace talks were renewed in December after a long hiatus.
Hashem, a Maronite Christian, was earlier tried in absentia by the Syrian-controlled Lebanese government and sentenced to death for collaborating with the enemy. But several months ago, Hashem explained his position to reporters.
"I have fought all the time to protect my village at the time when there was no [proper] Lebanese government," Hashem said in a Jerusalem Post interview. "In fact, it was a previous government which sent me here [as a member of the Lebanese Army] in the first place."
Hashem, who had survived several previous attempts on his life, joined the official Lebanese Army in 1970. At the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in 1976, he led 600 soldiers who were sent by the government to protect their own families at home in south Lebanon. The Lebanese army appointed General Saad Hadad to command all of southern Lebanon.
In 1979, when Hadad retired, he established the Free Lebanese Army with the support of his men. It later became the SLA and allied itself with Israel and the IDF against terror organizations operating in the south.
SLA fighters, who are primarily Christian, are looked upon as traitors. It was formed at a time when the Palestine Liberation Organization and others from outside the country had sided with various internal factions in the civil war.
"I have never fought or acted against the Lebanese government but only against those who have put pressure on the government and on me and mine - extremist organizations which have created problems in Lebanon generally and not just in the security zone - Palestinian organizations ...and others like Hizb'allah and the Islamic Jihad and other organizations," Hashem said.
SLA members and their families are deeply concerned about their future security following an Israeli troop withdrawal from the zone. Barak promised upon election last May to pull the soldiers from Lebanon within a year.