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Did Israeli soldiers step into Lebanese territory?

BEIRUT, LEBANON — Tuesday’s Israel-Lebanon clash, the deadliest incident in four years along the tense border, continued to reverberate today with Israel calling on the United States to cease its financial support for the Lebanese Army.

BEIRUT, LEBANON — Tuesday’s Israel-Lebanon clash, the deadliest incident in four years along the tense border, continued to reverberate today with Israel calling on the United States to cease its financial support for the Lebanese Army.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the militant Shiite Hezbollah, warned on Tuesday night that his organization would come to the aid of the Lebanese Army if it came under further attack by Israel.

 “From now on, if the army is attacked in any area where the resistance has a presence or a say, the resistance will not stand idly by,” he said in a televised speech before an audience of supporters in southern Beirut.

The United Nations Security Council expressed its “deep concern” over the deadly clash and “called on all parties to practice utmost restraint” to prevent any further escalation.

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One Israeli army officer, at least two Lebanese soldiers, and a Lebanese journalist were killed Tuesday in a clash on the border. The fighting, the most serious since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, occurred when Israeli troops attempted to cut down a tree that lay north of the 12-foot high security fence, but a few yards south of the actual border.

The United Nations peacekeeping force in south Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, confirmed that it had been informed about the planned tree-cutting operation by the Israeli military and that the Lebanese Army had been notified.

The Lebanese Army admits opening fire first, but says its soldiers fired warning shots only. Israeli troops returned fire and the shooting quickly escalated.

Why there’s confusion about the border
It is not the first time that the discrepancy between the paths traced by the Israeli security fence and the border have raised tensions in the area.

The Israeli fence does not always follow the border but sometimes dips by as much as 100 yards into Israeli territory, conforming to the rugged topography of the frontier region. Israeli troops occasionally operate north of the fence but short of the border to clear vegetation or to conduct surveillance missions. The problem arises when Lebanese see Israeli troops crossing the fence and assume they have entered Lebanese territory.

Since September 2007, UNIFIL, in coordination with the Lebanese and Israeli governments, has been demarcating the “Blue Line,” the UN term for the path corresponding to the border, with blue-painted barrels. But only 24 miles of the 70 mile frontier have been marked so far, according to UNIFIL.

Similar incident in 2007
Tuesday’s incident echoed an earlier clash in February 2007 when Lebanese troops opened fire on an Israeli army bulldozer that was clearing suspected roadside bombs between the security fence and the border near the Israeli settlement of Avivim. The Israelis returned fire but there were no casualties on that occasion.

Israeli troops returned today to the scene of the clash to continue clearing undergrowth north of the security fence, but there was no further shooting.

“If the Israelis finish their work today without any further incident, then this is an isolated occurrence and things should return to normal,” a UNIFIL officer said on condition of anonymity.

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Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak attempted to play down Tuesday’s fighting, describing it as a local incident and not orchestrated by the Lebanese government nor Hezbollah.

“I hope there will be no escalation; that we will have a calm summer and that things will return to normal,” he said.

U.S. military aid to Lebanon: $525 million since 2006
However, Israel could use the clash to lobby the US to scale down its military aid program for the Lebanese Army, which presently stands at more than $525 million since 2006.

Still, the US has been sensitive to Israeli security concerns. Most of the equipment dispatched to the Lebanese Army consists of transport vehicles, communications, and ammunition. The US so far has declined to include arms that could pose a threat to Israel such as antiaircraft systems and antitank missiles.

The US hopes that bolstering the capabilities of the Lebanese Army will undermine Hezbollah’s claim that its formidable military wing is the best means of defending Lebanon from possible Israeli aggression.

Hezbollah stayed out of the fighting on Tuesday. Sheikh Nasrallah said that he was in direct contact with Lebanese Army command and top officials.
“We told our militants to hold back, not to do anything,” Nasrallah said.

But he added that Hezbollah would respond to future attacks on the Lebanese Army.

“The Israeli hand that targets the Lebanese Army will be cut off,” he said.

 Analysts say that although Hezbollah has said it is ready for war, and is stronger than in 2006, it is not looking for a renewed confrontation with Israel.