JERUSALEM — Israel fired toward Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon on Tuesday after the Shiite guerrillas set off an explosion along the tense border that wounded two Israeli soldiers, in the most serious incident between the two countries in months.
The Israeli military said soldiers were on a patrol when an explosive device went off. Israeli troops then found a second explosive device on the Israeli side of the border, which was detonated by Israeli bomb squads. Israeli forces then responded by firing artillery toward two Hezbollah positions in Lebanon.
On its Al Manar TV station, Hezbollah issued a statement claiming responsibility for the blast, saying it targeted an Israeli patrol. The admission marked a rare instance of an open clash between the two bitter enemies and a stark flare-up after years of relative calm.
Israel and Lebanon have been in a state of war for six decades, but the border area has remained largely quiet since a month-long war in the summer of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah. There have been sporadic outbursts of violence since then.
Israel suspects that Hezbollah may be looking to flex its muscles along the border to deflect attention away from its struggles in fighting against Islamic rebels in Syria. Israeli officials said Tuesday's attack marked an escalation, but they did not expect it to devolve into an all-out conflict.
"The Lebanese government and Hezbollah are directly liable for this blatant breach of Israel's sovereignty," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli Defense Forces. "The IDF responded to the unprovoked aggression against its forces and will continue to operate in order to maintain the safety of the northern border of Israel."
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel has "proven that we will respond strongly against any attempts to harm us."
The incident comes two days after Israeli soldiers opened fire after what they said was a border breach in the Shebaa farms area. Lebanon's military countered that one of its army outposts came under Israeli fire, and one soldier was lightly wounded.
Fearful of provoking Israel, Hezbollah has rarely taken responsibility for attacks since the 2006 war.
The group is heavily involved in Syria's civil war, fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces. The attack against Israel comes two days after Hezbollah had at least eight fighters killed when members of Syria's al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front attacked the group's positions near the Syria border.
Hezbollah officials have said their involvement in Syria does not affect their readiness to fight Israel if a war breaks out.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Tuesday's incident violated a U.N. Security Council resolution that was adopted to end the 2006 war. He said the U.N. force in Lebanon, which has been in place for decades, has launched an investigation and contacted both sides to urge restraint.
"Such actions are in contravention of efforts to reduce tensions and establish a stable and secure environment in southern Lebanon," Dujarric said.
Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.