Guardian uncovers documents at odds with evidence used to jail Australian engineer in Iraq

Australian-born Irish citizen Robert Pether and his Egyptian colleague was found guilty of deception by an Iraqi judge. (Supplied)
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Updated 28 April 2023
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Guardian uncovers documents at odds with evidence used to jail Australian engineer in Iraq

  • Pether alleged that a “confession” statement used against him was mistranslated by a biased employee of Iraq’s central bank
  • Pether and Zaghloul were sentenced to five years in prison in 2021 and fined $12 million

LONDON: Documents uncovered by The Guardian have called into question critical evidence used by Iraqi authorities to imprison Australian engineer Robert Pether, sparking calls for his release. 

Pether and his colleague Khaled Saad Zaghloul were sentenced to five years in prison in 2021 and fined $12 million following allegations that their engineering firm defrauded the Iraqi government during the construction of the Central Bank of Iraq’s new headquarters.

CME Consulting, Pether’s employer, was accused of continuing to charge the government for the work of a subcontractor, Meinhardt, despite telling Meinhardt to cease all operations on the project almost immediately after the two firms signed a contract.

According to testimony obtained by Guardian Australia, a Meinhardt employee told an Iraqi court in May 2021 that CME had told the subcontractor to halt work “three weeks after signing the contract.”

The Meinhardt employee’s testimony said: “We left the issue and the accused, Khaled Saad Zaghloul, did not contact us at all.

“(We) told (the Central Bank of Iraq) that the accused Khaled Saad Zaghloul informed us in 2017 that the project had stopped so we left the case and we did not send any of our engineers to the project site and did not provide any engineering consultations.”

However, email communication suggests that considerable contact between CME and Meinhardt lasted for months, contradicting what the court was told.

According to records obtained by The Guardian, CME and top Meinhardt personnel exchanged 51 emails between January and July 2018. The last of these was dated over six months after the contract.

From May to late June 2018, the Meinhardt employee who provided the prosecution testimony was copied into five CME-Meinhardt communications, six months after he claimed all interaction had halted.

Meanwhile, Pether, a father of three, alleged that a “confession” statement used against him was mistranslated by a biased employee of Iraq’s central bank before being handed to court.

Pether told The Guardian: “I recognized (my) translator as soon as he came into the room. He was known to me since 2016.

“Apart from facial recognition, he also has some distinguishing marks and characteristics.”

The Guardian has obtained contemporaneous court records confirming Pether brought this up during his criminal trial and complained that his translated statement was flawed and incorrect.

The record read: “The judge asked if there was an issue with the translator. Mr. Pether advised that the translator used by the investigation court was an employee of CBI. The judge then asked if he was biased. Mr. Pether said yes.”

Pether has now spent two years in a Baghdad detention cell after his arrest there in April 2021.

CME was preparing to withdraw personnel from Iraq when the central bank wrote a letter to its Dubai headquarters on Mar. 29, 2021, demanding a “meeting in Baghdad urgently to discuss and resolve the dispute according to the terms of the contract and not through illegal withdrawal.”

“They were lured into returning to Iraq and are detained under false pretenses and on fabricated charges,” the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found in a November 2021 report.

“A representative of the central bank allegedly stated at one stage that this would ‘all go away’ if CME made large financial concessions and if (Pether and Zaghloul) agreed to stay in Iraq and finish working on the project for free.”

The Iraqi central bank had not paid any CME invoices for seven months, demanding CME accept the loss and continue working for free to compensate for project delays that were caused by a second central bank contractor.

The Central Bank of Iraq, the Iraq Prime Minister’s Office, the Iraqi Foreign Affairs Ministry and embassy to Australia did not respond to detailed questions by the time of The Guardian article’s publication.

“I have asked the Australian government to work with their close partners and the Iraq government at the highest levels to help secure my release,” Pether said.
 


France reiterates support for Morocco’s Western Sahara plan

Updated 8 sec ago
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France reiterates support for Morocco’s Western Sahara plan

  • The foreign minister’s visit comes after a series of diplomatic tensions between Rabat and Paris, the former colonial power which is home to a large diaspora

RABAT: France’s Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, during a trip to Morocco intended to warm strained relations, on Monday reiterated French support of Morocco’s autonomy plan for disputed Western Sahara.
The former Spanish colony is largely controlled by Morocco but claimed by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which in 2020 declared a “self-defense war” and seeks the territory’s independence.
The United Nations considers Western Sahara a “non-self-governing territory.”
“This is an existential issue for Morocco. We know it,” Sejourne said during a press conference alongside his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita.
Sejourne said Morocco can count on France’s “clear and constant support” for its autonomy plan.
Rabat advocates limited autonomy for the vast desert territory which is home to abundant phosphates and fisheries.
Sejourne told journalists he wanted to support Moroccan efforts in developing the area.
“Morocco has invested a lot in development projects for the benefit of the local population and in terms of training, renewable energies, tourism,” and the use of ocean resources, he said.
The foreign minister’s visit comes after a series of diplomatic tensions between Rabat and Paris, the former colonial power which is home to a large diaspora.
Moroccans have been particularly upset by President Emmanuel Macron’s desired rapprochement with Algeria.
Sejourne proposed on Monday a partnership with Morocco focussed over the next 30 years on renewable energies, training and industrial development.
Morocco’s Bourita said “France is a distinguished partner of Morocco on the political, economic and humanitarian levels.”
The Polisario continues to demand a UN-supervised referendum on self-determination, which was agreed in a 1991 ceasefire accord after a 15-year war between the Front and Morocco. The referendum has still not taken place.
In late 2020 then-US president Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Rabat’s normalization of ties with Israel. Morocco has since then pursued an increasingly intense diplomatic effort to win over other countries.
 

 


What would a new Palestinian government in the West Bank mean for the war in Gaza?

Updated 27 February 2024
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What would a new Palestinian government in the West Bank mean for the war in Gaza?

  • Israel killed 30,000 Palestinians in Gaza, two-thirds of them women and children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry
  • It was granted limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza ahead of what the Palestinians hoped would be full statehood in both territories as well as east Jerusalem, lands that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war

RAMALLAH: The Palestinian Authority’s prime minister announced his government’s resignation on Monday, seen as the first step in a reform process urged by the United States as part of its latest ambitious plans to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But it will do little to address the authority’s longstanding lack of legitimacy among its own people or its strained relations with Israel. Both pose major obstacles to US plans calling for the PA, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, to govern postwar Gaza ahead of eventual statehood.
That’s assuming that the war in Gaza ends with the defeat of the Hamas militant group — an Israeli and US goal that seems elusive nearly five months into the grueling war that has killed almost 30,000 Palestinians and pushed the territory to the brink of famine.

This handout picture provided by the Palestinian Authority's Press Office (PPO) shows Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh (L) presenting the resignation of his government to President Mahmud Abbas, in Ramallah on February 26, 2024. (AFP)

Here’s a look at the government shakeup and what it means for the Israel-Hamas war.
WHAT IS THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY?
The PA was created in the early 1990s through interim peace agreements signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, then led by Yasser Arafat.
It was granted limited autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza ahead of what the Palestinians hoped would be full statehood in both territories as well as east Jerusalem, lands that Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
But the sides were unable to reach a final agreement through several rounds of peace talks. Mahmoud Abbas was elected president of the PA in 2005, months after Arafat’s death. Hamas won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections the following year, triggering an international boycott of the PA.

A displaced Palestinian child stands outside a makeshift tent attached to a school hosting families from other parts of the Gaza Strip in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza on February 26, 2024, as battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas continue for the fifth month. (AFP)

A power struggle between Abbas’ secular Fatah party and Hamas boiled over in the summer of 2007, with Hamas seizing power in Gaza after a week of street battles. That effectively confined Abbas’ authority to parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Abbas recognizes Israel, is opposed to armed struggle and is committed to a two-state solution. His security forces have cooperated with the Israeli military to crack down on Hamas and other armed groups, and his government has worked with Israel to facilitate work permits, medical travel and other civilian affairs.
WHAT DOES THE RESIGNATION MEAN?
In announcing his resignation, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said new arrangements were needed to address “the new reality in the Gaza Strip.”
Abbas accepted Shtayyeh’s resignation and is expected to replace him with Mohammad Mustafa, a US-educated economist who has held senior positions at the World Bank and currently leads the Palestine Investment Fund. He was deputy prime minister and economy minister from 2013-2015.

Palestinians search the rubble of their house destroyed in an overnight Israeli air strike in east Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on February 26, 2024, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. (AFP)

As a political independent and not a Fatah loyalist like Shtayyeh, Mustafa’s appointment would likely be welcomed by the US, Israel and other countries.
Mustafa has no political base of his own, and the 88-year-old Abbas will still have the final say on any major policies. Still, the appointment would convey the image of a reformed, professional PA that can run Gaza, which is important for the US
State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said it was up to the Palestinians to choose their leaders, but that the US welcomes any steps to “reform and revitalize” the PA.
“We think those steps are positive. We think that they’re an important step to achieving a reunited Gaza and West Bank under the Palestinian Authority.”
HOW DO PALESTINIANS VIEW THE AUTHORITY?
Abbas’ popularity has plummeted in recent years, with polls consistently finding that a large majority of Palestinians want him to resign. The PA’s security coordination with Israel is extremely unpopular, causing many Palestinians to view it as a subcontractor of the occupation.
Both the PA and Hamas have cracked down on dissent in the territories they control, violently suppressing protests and jailing and torturing critics. Abbas’ mandate expired in 2009 but he has refused to hold elections, citing Israeli restrictions.
Hamas, whose popularity has soared during this and previous rounds of violence, would likely do well in any free election.
But the most popular Palestinian leader by far is Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah leader who is serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison after a 2004 terrorism conviction.
Hamas is demanding his release in exchange for some of the hostages it captured in the Oct. 7 attack that ignited the war, but Israel has refused.
Hamas has called for all the Palestinian factions to establish an interim government to prepare the way for elections. But Israel, the US and other Western countries are likely to boycott any Palestinian body that includes the militant group, which they view as a terrorist organization.
DOES ISRAEL SUPPORT THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY?
Israel prefers the PA to Hamas. But even though they cooperate on security matters, Israel accuses the PA of inciting terrorism, and the PA accuses Israel of apartheid and genocide.
Israel’s criticism largely focuses on the PA’s provision of financial aid to the families of Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians killed by Israeli forces — including militants who killed Israelis. Israel says the payments incentivize terrorism. The PA portrays them as social welfare for victims of the occupation.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the PA should have no role in postwar Gaza. He says Israel will maintain open-ended security control over the territory while local Palestinian leaders administer civilian affairs. Netanyahu’s government is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
The US has outlined a path to a broader postwar settlement in which Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel and join other Arab states and a revitalized PA in helping to rebuild and govern Gaza — all in exchange for a credible path to an independent Palestinian state.
The reform of the PA represents a small part of that package, which has yet to win over the Israeli government.
 

 


‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar

Updated 26 February 2024
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‘Become stronger’: Iranians urged to vote as Mideast tensions soar

  • Voters in the Islamic republic will pick a new parliament for another four years

QOM,Iran: In the Iranian shrine city of Qom, huge street banners remind voters to head to the polls in Friday’s parliamentary elections, held as the Gaza war stokes Middle East tensions.

Voters in the Islamic republic will pick a new parliament for another four years, as well as members of the Assembly of Experts in charge of electing Iran’s supreme leader.

The vote comes amid a biting economic crisis and will be the first since Iran was rocked by nationwide protests over the death of Iranian Kurd Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest for allegedly violating the strict dress code for women.

Large posters around Qom — around 120 kilometers (75 miles) south of the capital Tehran — show Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in front of a ballot box, with a message urging people to vote in order for Iran “to become stronger.”

Islamic theology student Mohammad Jafari said he will heed the call, voicing hope that the election will strengthen Iran at a time its arch enemy Israel is fighting a devastating war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“The elections will strengthen both the country’s internal and international standing,” said 27-year-old Jafari in Qom, a center of Shiite Muslim shrines and home to renowned religious scholars.

The Gaza war broke out after the unprecedented October 7 attack by Hamas militants claimed about 1,160 lives in Israel, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.

Israel’s military campaign has killed at least 29,782 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Hamas-run territory’s Health Ministry.

Iran and Israel are bitter enemies, and Tehran has made support for the Palestinian cause a centerpiece of its foreign policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Iran has supported Hamas in the war, but denied any direct involvement in its attack, or in military action launched by allied armed groups in countries from Lebanon to Yemen.

To Jafari, it is important that “our enemies see that the government has the support of the people” to deter military threats against it.

Regional tensions have soared since the start of the Israel-Hamas war, also drawing in Iran-backed militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

Iran has repeatedly said it does not seek an “expansion” of conflict.

Rahbari, a 40-year-old housewife in Qom, said the elections are an opportunity to assert Iran’s “independence” and “neutralize all enemy plots.”

She said it is important to vote given “the events that are happening in the region and also the threats made by Iran’s enemies.”

Iran’s current parliament, elected in 2020, has been dominated by conservatives and ultra-conservatives after many reformists and moderates were disqualified.

The 2020 elections saw the lowest voter turnout since 1979 — while a recent poll conducted by Iran’s state television found that more than half of respondents were indifferent to the elections.

Jafari believes a low turnout this time would show Iran “is in the grip of unrest and divisions,” fearing this might prompt a “military attack” on its territory.

But for others in Iran, the war in Gaza is not a major concern.

Iran’s economy has been reeling under crippling US sanctions imposed over its contested nuclear program, and inflation in recent years has hovered near 50 percent.

The 88-member Assembly of Experts is tasked with electing, supervising and, if necessary, dismissing the supreme leader, who has the final say in all matters of state in Iran.

Khamenei, now 84, has held the post since 1989.

Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani has called on the people to vote “to protest against the ruling minority.”

Rouhani recently announced that he was barred from seeking reelection to the Assembly of Experts after 24 years of membership.

Meanwhile a coalition called the Reform Front has said it will not take part in “meaningless, non-competitive and ineffective elections.”

Majid Hosseini, a farmer visiting the Masoumeh shrine in Qom, insisted that the elections this year are particularly important.

“If we do not participate, all these 40 years of hard work will be lost,” the 79-year-old said, referring to the Islamic revolution of 1979.

Similarly, Mehdi Mousavi believes choosing the Assembly of Experts is especially significant.

The assembly is “the guarantor of preserving Islam,” said the 39-year-old Qom resident, noting that its members are “experts in the important religious issues.”


Could Houthi attacks on ships off the Yemen coast continue even after a Gaza ceasefire?

Updated 27 February 2024
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Could Houthi attacks on ships off the Yemen coast continue even after a Gaza ceasefire?

  • Militia says it is acting in solidarity with Palestinians, but it appears to be profiting in other ways
  • Security experts say current Western military response may be playing into the hands of Houthis

LONDON: The campaign of attacks by Yemen’s Houthi fighters on shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden continues, despite renewed US and UK strikes on their positions, leading to fears about the long-term security of these strategically important waterways.

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia as it appears to be gaining strength, in terms of weaponry and fighters, and confidence in its ability to cause global trade disruptions.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference last week, Rashad Al-Alimi, chair of the Presidential Leadership Council of the UN-backed Yemeni government, said the Houthis had irrevocably altered the region’s geopolitical contours.

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia. (AP)

“The Red Sea will continue to be a source of tension, ready to explode at any political turn, as long as the Houthis control coastal regions,” he added.

“To end Houthi piracy, we must address its origin and source. This can only be accomplished by restoring state institutions, ending the coup, and applying maximum pressure on Iran.”

The Houthi militia is part of the “axis of resistance,” a loose network of Iran-backed proxy militias throughout the region that includes the Palestinian militant group Hamas, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and several Shiite groups in Iraq.

When the Houthis began attacking commercial shipping in November, they claimed they were only targeting vessels with links to Israel in an attempt to pressure the Israeli government to end its military operation against Hamas in Gaza.

However, Houthi drones, missiles and acts of piracy have been launched against several ships with no ties to Israel. In fact, in recent weeks Yemeni ships, and even vessels belonging to Houthi-allied Iran, have come under attack.

According to a tally by the Associated Press news agency, the Houthis have carried out at least 57 attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since Nov. 19. US Central Command has even identified the use of a Houthi-operated submarine drone.

In response to these attacks, many of the world’s biggest freight companies have redirected their vessels from the Suez Canal route to the Mediterranean, thereby avoiding the Red Sea, and instead are using much longer and more expensive routes via the Cape of Good Hope.

The Houthis have carried out at least 57 attacks on commercial and military ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden since Nov. 19. (AFP)

Simon Evenett, founder of nonprofit organization the St. Gallen Endowment for Prosperity Through Trade, said that while shipping costs have risen, they are still “well below” their pandemic-era peaks. He also noted that some freight companies had simply continued to traverse the waterways of the Red Sea despite the risk of attack.

“The New York Fed’s index of Global Supply Chain Pressure has barely moved,” Evenett told Arab News. “Important as it is, just 11 percent of global trade flows through the Red Sea. This isn’t enough to disrupt the world economy.

“What’s harder to assess is whether yet more upheaval in trade routes further undermines policymakers’ and corporate trust in long-distance sourcing. A further nudge towards national and regional sourcing can be expected.”

To prevent disruption to trade, protect mariners and uphold the right to freedom of navigation, the US-led patrol mission, Operation Prosperity Guardian, was established in December. When the Houthi attacks persisted, the US and UK launched strikes against militia targets in Yemen.

In a joint statement on Feb. 24, the US and the UK said their military forces struck 18 Houthi sites across eight locations in Yemen, including underground weapons and missile storage facilities, air defense systems, radars and a helicopter.

The Houthi militia is part of the “axis of resistance,” a loose network of Iran-backed proxy militias throughout the region. (AFP)

The operation was the fourth time the US and UK had carried out joint attacks against the Houthis since Jan. 12. The US has also carried out almost daily operations against Houthi targets, including incoming missiles, rockets and drones targeting vessels.

These Western strikes have done little to stem the tide of attacks, however. On Feb. 19, the Houthis mounted one of their most damaging assaults yet, on the Belize-flagged Rubymar, carrying cargo from the UAE to Bulgaria, forcing its crew to abandon ship.

Indeed, far from curtailing the activities of the Houthis, their popularity in Yemen appears to have grown since the shipping attacks began, with thousands of recruits reportedly joining their ranks.

If its intent was to force a swift Houthi climbdown, the Western military response has so far borne little fruit. The Houthis seem only too keen to up the ante, with their leader Abdul Malik Al-Houthi stating “we will also attack with submarine weapons.”

However, in a message posted recently on social media platform X, the militia said: “What the world is impatiently waiting for is not the militarization of the Red Sea, but rather an urgent and comprehensive declaration of ceasefire in Gaza, for humanitarian reasons that are clear to anyone.

“There is no danger to international or European navigation so long as there are no aggressive operations, and thus, there is no need to militarize the Red Sea.”

In a joint statement on Feb. 24, the US and the UK said their military forces struck 18 Houthi sites across eight locations in Yemen. (Getty Images/AFP)

Not everyone is convinced that securing a ceasefire in Gaza will end the Houthi attacks on shipping. Like Al-Alimi, those with such concerns want the international community to take the worst-case scenario more seriously and take preventive action now.

Raiman Al-Hamdani, a researcher at social enterprise organization Ark, agreed that attacks are likely to continue after the war, but in the form of piracy in a “push to monetize their presence” in the seas off the coast of Yemen.

“This could mean attacking commercial vessels in the future, albeit not to the extent that we are seeing today,” Al-Hamdani told Arab News, who also predicted the Houthis could begin demanding tolls from vessels passing through Bab Al-Mandab Strait in return for avoiding attacks.

Farea Al-Muslimi, a research fellow at Chatham House, likewise believes the Houthis have hit upon an opportunity to raise revenues from passing vessels.

“They will, of course, try to make deals and there are already countries that are looking for waivers,” Al-Muslimi told Arab News.

“But there are several problems with this, one of which is that were they to escalate the crisis in the Red Sea, it would not be safe for anyone.

“As you can see, they have already attacked ships linked to Yemen and vessels belonging to their own ally, Iran, so any escalation of this will not be a clean battle.”

Some countries, including regional states, have called for a more measured response to the attacks, rather than military action that might inflame tensions in the region.

The Egyptian Foreign Ministry recently expressed “deep concern over the escalation of military operations in the Red Sea and the airstrikes that were directed at a number of sites in Yemen.” It called for a “united international and regional effort to reduce tension and instability in the region, including navigation security.”

US Central Command has identified the use of a Houthi-operated submarine drone. (AFP)

It added: “The dangerous and escalating developments taking place are a clear indication of what we’ve repeatedly warned against regarding the dangers of expanding the conflict in the region as a result of the continued Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip.”

Security experts have also said the military response might prove counterproductive, with concerns that it could play into the hands of the Houthis, who have sought to present themselves as defenders of Gaza who are standing up to Israel and its Western allies.

Al-Hamdani believes the attacks on shipping serve several purposes for the Houthis: to help recruit new followers, distract from domestic problems, burnish support among the population, and to strengthen the militia’s negotiating position in the ongoing Yemen peace process.

Al-Muslimi believes the Houthis have “already capitalized on it as much as they could politically,” suggesting the attacks will likely stop when the war in Gaza ends.

However, he said the regional calculus has changed as a result of the Houthi onslaught and the broader context in the region since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on southern Israel that sparked the conflict in Gaza, increasing the chances the Middle East could be plunged into a wider war.

The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia. (AP)
The persistence of the attacks has turned the spotlight on the Iran-backed militia. (AP)

“Nothing in the Middle East will be the same after Oct. 7, and this includes how the world views Yemen, how the world views the Red Sea,” said Al-Muslimi.

“That applies to everything and everywhere. That is how much of an influence it has had. That is how much it has spilled over.”


Two dead in Israeli raids on Baalbek

Updated 26 February 2024
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Two dead in Israeli raids on Baalbek

  • Hezbollah downs Israeli drone north of Litani Line
  • Mohammed Raad warns of ‘consequences’ if Israel ‘miscalculates their actions’ in Lebanon

BEIRUT: On Monday, the scope of the 142-day confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah Lebanon’s southern border expanded after Israeli warplanes raided two sites near the city of Baalbek.

The strikes on the city, deep in the Bekaa, killed two people and lead to numerous injuries among Hezbollah members, civilians, and Lebanese Armed Forces personnel.

A few hours later, an Israeli drone targeted a car in Al-Majadel plain in Tyre, southern Lebanon. Initial reports indicated that Hezbollah members were killed in the strike, but the identities of the victims are as yet unknown.

The raids, the first of their kind on an area west of the city of Baalbek, where Hezbollah centers are located, resulted in the deaths of Hussein Ali Younis, from Brital, and an as yet unnamed young man from the town of Chmistar.

Lebanese Army soldier Ali Fayyad Salem and his child, Joud, aged 4, were among four people injured.

The raids targeted two Hezbollah centers in the Adous plain in Bodai and in the town of Haouch Tall Safiyeh in the vicinity of Baalbek. Initial reports indicated that the two raids targeted “supply warehouses belonging to one of Hezbollah’s institutions.”

Locals shared pictures of smoke rising from the two sites on their mobile phones. A correspondent for Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV said that one of the two raids “targeted an empty, three-story building.”

Hezbollah confirmed in its initial position that “the Israeli strike on Baalbek will not go without a response.”

Israel Defense Forces spokesman Avichay Adraee said on social media that the IDF “will continue to protect Israel and operate in Lebanese airspace against Hezbollah.”

Adraee acknowledged that “warplanes launched raids on complexes used by Hezbollah’s air defense unit in the Bekaa, in response to the firing of surface-to-air missiles at a Zik drone.”

Meanwhile, Hezbollah downed an Israeli drone in the Iqlim Al-Tuffah area using a surface-to-air missile.

The escalation on Monday began with Hezbollah’s air defense unit shooting down the drone that had been flying for hours over the Nabatieh and Iqlim Al-Tuffah areas, north of the Litani Line.

Two consecutive explosions were heard around 8:45 a.m., and dozens of people managed to capture images on their phones of white smoke in the sky of Iqlim Al-Tuffah, followed by the drone catching fire before crashing into a forested area nearby.

Hezbollah announced in a statement that “the drone was a Hermes 450 and was targeted with a surface-to-air missile above the Iqlim Al-Tuffah area, and it was seen falling with the naked eye.”

Israeli media confirmed that “an Israeli settler was injured by missile fragments during the shelling of Shtula with an anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon.”

The use of Israeli drones to carry out assassinations inside Lebanon marked a dangerous turning point in the ongoing conflict.

Israel has flown Hermes 900 drones over Lebanon, which weighs 350 kg and has various capabilities like surveillance, intelligence gathering and target acquisition. The drone has a laser, flies at 30,000 feet, can stay airborne for 36 hours, scanning vast areas.

Hermes 450 drones, like that shot down on Monday, have also often been used. This drone is designed for long-term tactical operations in the IDF’s reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering units.

Another drone deployed in Lebanon on Monday afternoon over the south was the Heron TP. This drone is considered “dangerous” and has used to carry out most drone-based assassinations in Lebanon.

Mohammed Raad, the leader of the Hezbollah parliamentary bloc, warned Israel that they would face severe consequences if they “miscalculate their actions towards us in Lebanon.”

Raad stressed that “the enemy’s pain is what makes them overreact at times, but they still adhere to the boundaries of deterrence established by the resistance with a great deal of discipline.”

He stated that the battle against Israel in Lebanon is “a crucial and delicate one, with its own strategic considerations. The aim “is to prevent the enemy from achieving their objectives, while the enemy seeks to draw us into a broader conflict to their advantage, exploiting tyrannic international support. We intend to lure the enemy into a battle on our terms and for our benefit.”