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Israel Did Not Violate Border in Fatal Clash With Lebanon, UN Force Says

 
By Janine Zacharia
     Aug. 4 (Washington Post) -- JERUSALEM -- A day after Israeli
and Lebanese forces exchanged gunfire in a clash that left four
dead, the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in
south Lebanon invited officers from both sides for an unusual
three-way meeting in a bid to avert an expansion of hostilities.
     The group was scheduled to meet late Wednesday. Earlier in
the day, the U.N. force confirmed that Israeli troops were
operating inside Israeli territory when fighting erupted,
dismissing Lebanon's allegation that Israeli troops had crossed
onto Lebanese soil.
     Hostilities began Tuesday as Israeli troops worked to cut
down a tree along the border in an area similar to where Israeli
troops were ambushed by militants from the Lebanese militia
Hezbollah in 2006. That attack prompted a month-long rocket war.
     In Tuesday's incident, Lebanese troops fired at the Israeli
forces and Israeli troops returned fire in combat that lasted
about an hour. Two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese reporter and an
Israeli reservist officer were killed. Israeli troops finished
cutting down the tree Wednesday.
     A spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL
said it expected Israel and Lebanon at the three-way meeting to
"renew their commitment" to a "cessation of hostilities."
     Tuesday's events shattered a calm that had prevailed over
the border area since the 2006 war and added to tensions that had
been building between Israel and Lebanon in recent weeks.
     (More on Israeli-Lebanese tensions)
     Lebanon has been gripped in recent days by arrests of people
accused of spying for Israel, including a retired army colonel
Wednesday. The border incident also came during a week in which
Israel found itself under fire on multiple fronts.
     Besides the flare-up on the northern border, rockets were
launched from the Gaza Strip. One landed in the nearby city of
Ashkelon, and another slammed through the roof of a building on
an Israeli college campus. Israel retaliated by striking at
targets inside Gaza.
     On Monday, a barrage of rockets was fired from Egypt's Sinai
desert toward the southern Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat.
Some of the rockets landed in the neighboring Jordanian town of
Aqaba where one Jordanian was killed.
     Israeli officials said Wednesday that it remained unclear
who was behind the rocket fire from the Sinai.
     On the Lebanese border, Israel has anxiously watched the
Hezbollah militia, which pummeled Israeli towns with Katyusha
rockets in 2006, rebuild an arsenal of tens of thousands of
missiles of various range.
     That buildup has led Israel to complain to the United
Nations that its peacekeeping force, which was ramped up after
the 2006 war, hasn't stopped the flow of war material to
Hezbollah.
     Israel says rockets, supplied mostly by Iran, are being
trucked across the Syrian border into south Lebanon. The Lebanese
government has complained to the United Nations about Israeli
reconnaissance flights that violate Lebanese airspace and has
accused Israel of trying to foment tensions in the region.
     Amid these tensions, some experts have predicted that a new
war could erupt soon.
     "Although the border area between Israel and Lebanon is
quieter than any time in the previous decade, speculation that a
third Lebanon war will occur in the next twelve to eighteen
months has been steadily rising," Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S.
ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, wrote in an analysis published
by the Council on Foreign Relations last month.
     Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu held the Lebanese
government directly responsible for the border clash. In a
statement issued by his office Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israel
"reacted and will react in the future" to any attempts to disrupt
the quiet of its northern border.
     That warning followed a threat by Defense Minister Ehud
Barak last month that Israel would consider the Lebanese
government directly responsible for any provocation by Hezbollah.
An Iranian-backed Shiite militia that the United States
designates as a terrorist group, Hezbollah is also a powerful
member of the ruling Lebanese coalition.
     Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri condemned what he called
Israel's violation of Lebanese sovereignty on Tuesday and
demanded that the "international community bear their
responsibilities and pressure Israel to stop its aggression."
     An Israeli army spokeswoman, Avital Leibovich, said the
encounter started when Israeli troops were "clearing bushes for
operational reasons" in Israeli territory along the border.
     The internationally recognized border between Israel and
Lebanon is delineated by barrels and other markers in the area
where the clashes took place. In addition, there is an Israeli
security fence along the border that dips in some places into
Israeli territory.
     The Israeli army said it had notified U.N. peacekeeping
forces of its bush-clearing plans earlier in Tuesday. As the army
began to work in mid-afternoon, Leibovich said, Lebanese soldiers
shouted to the Israeli soldiers to leave the area and Israeli
soldiers responded that they were operating within Israeli
territory.
     She said Lebanese soldiers then opened fire at the Israeli
commanders and Israel retaliated with artillery and small arms.
     "We were asked to hold our fire so the Lebanese could
evacuate'' their wounded. "Half an hour later we were attacked by
a [rocket-propelled grenade]. They directed fire towards an
Israeli tank. Then we retaliated with an Israeli helicopter,"
Leibovich added.
     Leibovich said the Israeli army believed the attack was
planned.
     The 2006 war erupted after Hezbollah fired rockets at
Israeli towns and launched a deadly ambush on an Israeli border
patrol. Israel responded by firing at targets inside Lebanon and
for 34 days mortars and missiles rained down on both sides of the
border.
     Some commentators in Israel perceived Tuesday's incident as
an attempt by Hezbollah to reassert itself ahead of a forthcoming
indictment by an international panel investigating the 2005
murder of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the current Lebanese
leader's father.
     (More on Hariri tribunal)
     "Hezbollah has to prove they are required for defending the
south," said former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh.
"They create a provocation to show that they are still needed."
     Leaders from Saudi Arabia to Syria have flocked to Lebanon
in recent days to urge calm amid reports that the U.N.
investigator is likely to indict members of Hezbollah in Hariri's
killing. A U.N. diplomat said charges are likely to be announced
this fall.
     Staff writers Glenn Kessler in Washington and Colum Lynch in
New York contributed to this report.
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