Israel Did Not Violate Border in Fatal Clash With Lebanon, UN Force Says
Aug 4, 2010
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.