BEIRU, (Reuters) – The U.N. peacekeeping force in south Lebanon said on Wednesday Israeli soldiers were operating inside Israel when a deadly firefight broke out with Lebanese troops in the most serious border violence since a 2006 war.
A day after a senior Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist were killed in a rare skirmish that raised fears of wider conflict, Israel’s military appeared keen to show it would not be deterred from activity in the area.
There was no repeat of the clashes when the Israeli army moved a crane back into the tense frontier zone to complete a tree-pruning mission that had drawn Lebanese army fire.
Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which stayed out of the fighting, vowed to “cut off the hand” of Israel if it attacked the army again. But its leader doubted the incident would spark a war.
In a diplomatic boost for Israel, the U.N. peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL) said Israeli soldiers were inside Israeli territory when the border clashes erupted.
“UNIFIL established … that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side,” said UNIFIL military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Naresh Bhatt, referring to a border line drawn by the United Nations after Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000.
A three-way meeting between the Lebanese and Israeli armies and UNIFIL was due to take place on Wednesday night.
LEBANON BLAMES “TREACHEROUS ENEMY”
Tuesday’s violence began after Israel soldiers used a crane to reach over a frontier fence to trim a tree whose branches, the Israeli military said, were tripping the fence’s electronic anti-infiltration devices. It said its soldiers had stayed within Israel and the tree was south of the Blue Line.
Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri acknowledged that the area was south of the line, but said it was still Lebanese territory. Israel and Lebanon dispute parts of the Blue Line.
A Lebanese army official said the military had had prior notice of Israel’s planned activity but it had been agreed on condition that it took place under UNIFIL’s supervision, adding that said the Israelis had gone ahead without this.
The UNIFIL statement did not say whether the Israeli army had coordinated with the peacekeepers.
Lebanese troops deployed at a distance on Wednesday from the site where an Israeli crane again tore into trees and UNIFIL troops patrolled the adjacent border village of Adaisseh.
Lebanese army commander Jean Kahwaji also visited the area and said Israeli troops had ignored the objections of UNIFIL and of the Lebanese army as their patrol moved towards the border.
“Your brave stand in the face of the treacherous enemy … proved to this enemy that any aggression on our people and land will not pass without a price,” he told soldiers in the south.
An Israeli colonel said the incident was premeditated. He told reporters in northern Israel that Lebanese sniper fire had immediately hit the battalion and company commanders who were looking on from a hill.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said UNIFIL’s findings bore out Israel’s view that the “Lebanese attack on our forces was both unprovoked and unjustified.”
In Lebanon’s southern Christian village of Darb es-Sim, relatives of 31-year-old Sergeant Robert el-Ashi, one of the two soldiers killed on Tuesday, fainted from grief as family members gathered around his flag-draped coffin.
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu convened his security cabinet. He said after the clash Israel would “respond aggressively” to any future attempt “to disrupt the calm along the northern border.”
Tuesday’s deaths were the first on either side since the 2006 war in which 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed in Lebanon, along with 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
A new war could be more devastating than the last. Tension has increased since April, when Israel accused Syria of transferring long-range Scud missiles to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon — an allegation Damascus has rejected.
Disturbances between UNIFIL troops and villagers, who have branded French U.N. peacekeeping patrols provocative and intrusive, have also fuelled unease in the south.
Israel has threatened all-out attack on Lebanon in any new conflict, including strikes on Lebanese infrastructure. In 2006 it bombed bridges, fuel tanks, radar stations and Beirut airport, while Hezbollah fired 4,000 rockets into Israel.