Lethal Clash at Israeli-Lebanon Border
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JERUSALEM -- Israeli and Lebanese army troops exchanged lethal fire on their countries' border on Tuesday, in what was the fiercest clash in the area since Israel's monthlong war against the Lebanese Hezbollah militia in the summer of 2006.
Lebanon said at least four Lebanese were killed, while Israel reported that a battalion commander was killed and a platoon commander was critically wounded.
Each side blamed the other, trading accusations of violating the United Nations Security Council resolution that underpins the four-year-old cease-fire.
A senior American official in Washington said that, based on what had been learned so far, the Lebanese military appeared to have been responsible for starting the gunfire.
A Lebanese Army spokesman said the skirmishes started after Israeli soldiers crossed into Lebanese territory to cut down a tree. "We fired in the air, and they responded by firing artillery shells," the spokesman said, speaking on departmental conditions of anonymity.
The Israeli military said its soldiers were fired on inside Israeli territory, just west of the village of Misgav Am. Israel said that its forces were doing routine maintenance work in a gap between the so-called Blue Line, the internationally recognized border, and its security fence, and that it had coordinated in advance with the United Nations peacekeeping force in South Lebanon, Unifil.
Israel said it believed that the Lebanese attack had been planned. Before gunfire broke out, Lebanese soldiers shouted at the Israeli troops to move back, Israeli military officials said, and the Israelis shouted that they were in Israeli territory.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, said that Lebanese Army snipers opened fire and that they "targeted our commanders," who were observing the maintenance work.
The Israeli military said its forces returned fire with light arms and used artillery fire. Several minutes later, the military said in a statement, an Israeli Air Force helicopter fired at the Lebanese Army Forces Battalion Command Center in Al Taybeh, damaging several armored combat vehicles.
After the first Israeli response, Colonel Leibovich said, the Israelis were asked to hold their fire so that the Lebanese could evacuate their wounded. She said that Israel acquiesced, but that 30 minutes later, a rocket-propelled grenade was fired toward an Israeli tank.
The Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said in a statement: "Israel desires peace, and proved that when it withdrew its forces in 2000 to the international border. But Israel will absolutely not tolerate attacks on its soldiers or its civilians in its sovereign territory."
Israel said its foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, had instructed the Israeli diplomatic delegation to the United Nations to file a protest with the secretary general and the Security Council, calling the clash "one of many violations" of the United Nations resolution on the border, No.1701.
"Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the grave incident, and warns of the consequences should these continue," the Israeli government's statement said.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon "denounced the Israeli violations of the Lebanese sovereignty" in a statement, and urged "the Unifil, the U.N. and the international community to assume their responsibilities and put pressure on Israel to put an end to its aggression and its violations."
Unifil called for both sides to show "maximum restraint." After the Security Council met on the clashes, Council members issued a joint statement expressing their "deep concern" about the violence.
Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador and this month's Council president, said the Council wanted "all parties to practice utmost restraint," to avoid an further escalation and to respect the cease-fire agreement that has held since the 2006 war.
For Israel, the confrontation broke a relative calm on a third front in under a week, after rocket fire from Gaza and a rocket attack in the south. The northern border with Lebanon, though tense, has been mostly quiet.
Israeli military officials have warned about the fragility of the calm and have pointed to what they say is a concerted weapons buildup by Hezbollah in southern Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
On Tuesday, senior Israeli military officials said that elements of the Lebanese Army had been influenced by the Shiite, Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
"The provocation has been going on for a couple of months," a senior military official told reporters, speaking on condition of anonymity under army rules. Lebanese troops have been pointing rifles at the Israelis and threatening to fire, he said, noting that some units were more aggressive than others. The Lebanese troops who fired on Tuesday came from the 11th Brigade, which has a Shiite commander, he said.
The latest violence also coincided with tentative moves toward direct peace talks between Israel and the Western-backed Palestinian leadership based in the West Bank. Israel and the Obama administration have sought support from moderate Arab states, but Islamic militant forces in the region are opposed to any resumption of direct talks.
First Published August 4, 2010 2:01 am