By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A rare rocket barrage from Lebanon on Thursday deepened Israeli concern that al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants are opening a new front for confrontation with Israel.
The Israeli military said four rockets were fired from southern Lebanon. Two struck Israeli communities without causing casualties, a third was intercepted by the "Iron Dome" missile shield and the fourth fell outside Israeli territory, it said.
A U.S.-based group which monitors Islamist militants said the Brigades of Abdullah Azzam, an organization linked to al Qaeda, claimed credit for the rocket attack.
"A group official, Sirajuddin Zurayqat, who has appeared in prior releases from the Brigades, posted on his Twitter account that its Ziad Jarrah Battalions is 'behind the firing of the four rockets'," the SITE monitoring group said.
Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah guerrillas, who fought a 2006 war against Israel. But Israel blamed Thursday's salvo on a "global jihadi organization", its term for the Sunni Muslim al Qaeda and its offshoots.
HEZBOLLAH AND ASSAD
In Syria, Sunni Muslim jihadi fighters are battling alongside rebels trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by militants from the Shi'ite Hezbollah.
A strike on Israel by jihadists would be a show of force just a day after opposition activists in Syria accused Assad's loyalists of using chemical weapons to kill hundreds of people in a rebel-held Damascus suburb. Syria denied the allegations.
Israel believes jihadi groups in Egypt's lawless Sinai along Israel's southern border have been behind sporadic rocket attacks on its Red Sea resort of Eilat, where an Iron Dome battery shot down a rocket on August 13. On Monday, suspected Islamist militants killed 25 Egyptian policemen in Sinai.
Israeli leaders have said they fear al Qaeda-linked groups in Syria could eventually turn their sights on Israel and the occupied Golan Heights, or that Hezbollah might do so to deflect criticism from much of the Sunni Arab world for its potent support for Assad.
"(Thursday's rocket strike) is directly connected to all of the events taking place in the Middle East," said Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, the Israeli military's chief spokesman.
"Global jihad is looking for areas in which there is anarchy and chaos. We see them in Sinai, we find them in the Golan Heights, we find them in Lebanon, too," he said.
"They exploit opportunities ... and sometimes they try to attack Israeli citizens."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, commenting on Thursday's strike, said in a statement that "anyone who tries to attack us should know that we will hurt them".
Israel's military, however, signaled it would not retaliate for now for the bombardment, which triggered warning sirens and sent residents in the north scrambling for shelter.
"The IDF (military) is regarding this as a one-time incident. There is no change in regulations or orders," Mordechai told Channel 2 television, looking to play down the attack, the first on northern Israel since May.
Israeli television showed photos of Iron Dome blowing up an incoming rocket. The military said it was destroyed between the Israeli coastal towns of Acre and Nahariya.
The military first said that in addition to the intercepted rocket, three fell in Lebanon.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem and Sami Aboudi in Dubai; Editing by Andrew Roche)