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LEBANON: Border skirmish a grim reminder of Lebanon's precarious peace

August 4, 2010 | 10:03 am
Ap peacekeeper

Tuesday's deadly border skirmish between Israeli and Lebanese forces was defused without intervention from the militant group Hezbollah, but the incident served as a grim reminder of the violent and precarious flash points between Lebanon and Israel.

Clashes broke out near the southern Lebanese village of Adeisseh when Israeli troops attempted to uproot a tree in an ambiguous border area. The fighting resulted in the death of two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli officer.

The United Nations peacekeeping force that monitors the border released a statement on Wednesday explaining that the tree in question was located on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, and it was successfully uprooted by the Israelis.

Late Tuesday night, as it became apparent that the fighting had been contained, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah told a tense nation that he had ordered his fighters to stand down–this time.

"If the army is attacked by Israel where the resistance is present, the resistance will not remain silent," he warned. "The resistance will cut off the Israeli hand that extends to [attack] the Lebanese Army."

When news of fighting on the border broke yesterday, many in Lebanon initially thought Hezbollah and Israel had decided to finish what was started during the devastating July war of 2006. Reports of imminent war have been circulating for the last year at least, and Israeli leaders have threatened to target all of Lebanon in the next round of fighting.

"This was a border skirmish ... but the next one is going to be very major and very destructive on both sides," said Timur Goksel, a former senior adviser to UN peacekeeping troops in Lebanon.

Goksel went on to say that as long as the fighting did not spread beyond the Lebanese and Israeli armies, which communicate regularly through the UN, it was unlikely to escalate.

"You cannot start a war that can be deadly for both sides based on a border skirmish with the national army," he said. “It's not a militia; it’s a national army that’s recognized and trained and equipped by Western countries friendly to Israel, so of course you have to be careful with these people.... I don’t see any regional ramifications from this incident.”

Widely circulated footage of the incident appears to show an Israeli crane reaching over the Israeli security fence to cut down the tree, drawing fire from Lebanese troops who claimed the Israelis crossed the UN-demarcated Blue Line dividing the two warring countries. Israel says it returned fire with light arms, artillery, and missiles.

The Blue Line was drawn in 2000 after the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and has since been used as a de-facto border, but does not follow the Israeli security fence in several contested areas, often leading to misunderstandings.

But for many Lebanese who spoke to Babylon and Beyond, the location of the tree, or the question of who fired first, was beside the point. Many saw the incident as another example of Israeli aggression in an intractable and ongoing conflict.

"Of course we're afraid of war; we're afraid of Israel," said Fatima Ghaddar, a 20-year-old student. "Only when Israel is gone will Lebanon be able to relax."

Elliott's home appliance shop in an upscale neighborhood of East Beirut was doing a brisk business until about noon on Tuesday when news of the fighting broke.

"At first I thought Hezbollah had started something," said Elliot, 39, who declined to give his family name. "I swear, I went online and applied to emigrate to the U.S." said Elliot. "I'm not proud of the army; I'm not proud of anything Lebanese."

Majida Faqih, a 39-year-old homemaker, said she was glad Hezbollah didn't get involved in the fighting.

"If they had joined in it would have escalated," she said.

But Rabia Khoury, 52, said he would welcome a Hezbollah intervention.

"If the army is being attacked, [Hezbollah] should get involved," he said. "If it happens again they should."

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

A UN peacekeeper waves a  flag as Israeli troops patrol the border Credit: Ronith Daher / Associated Press