x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Israeli soldiers return to border clash point

A day after the battle with Lebanese troops, Israel provokes its neighbour again by trying to remove another tree in disputed zone.

An Israeli bulldozer is guarded by a military vehicle as it removes a tree at the Israel-Lebanon border yesterday.
An Israeli bulldozer is guarded by a military vehicle as it removes a tree at the Israel-Lebanon border yesterday.

BEIRUT // The armies of Lebanon and Israel were locked in a tense standoff along their shared border yesterday following Tuesday's bloody confrontation, even as international officials tried to broker an agreement to ease tensions and prevent future incidents.

Representatives of the UN peacekeeping force patrolling southern Lebanon were scheduled to hold a meeting with Lebanese and Israeli military officials yesterday to discuss ways to prevent a recurrence of the fighting, in which two Lebanese soldiers, one Israeli officer and a Lebanese journalist were killed. Yet even as the 12,000-member peacekeeping unit, known as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil), scrambled to prevent the worst border incident since 2006 from spiralling out of control, both sides seemed to be taking steps to antagonise the other, while also trading accusations on how the situation began.

Just a day after the firefight that began when Israeli troops attempted to remove a cypress tree from the disputed border area, an armoured mechanical digger returned to the scene of the hours-long battle and ripped the tree out of the ground, drawing protests and condemnation from Lebanon, which contends that the area falls under Lebanon's sovereignty. In response to Tuesday's violence and yesterday's tree removal, the Lebanese military's high command issued a directive authorising soldiers and officers to fire upon any Israeli incursion into Lebanon without its permission. If implemented, the new policy increases the risk that similar clashes could occur in the future, due to disputes about the poorly designated border.

A top UN official said the stakes that both armies have in defending their presence along the contentious border, known as the Blue Line, helped escalate a dispute over a tree into an intense military clash. "Both sides felt the need to so something - the Israeli army needed to prove they can do operations on the Blue Line, and the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] wanted to show they would not stand idle."

Despite lingering tension, the UN-brokered ceasefire appeared to be holding, although one diplomat in Beirut said the situation was "far from settled" and was of "grave concern" to the UN and diplomats on both sides of the border. An Israeli army officer said the tree-cutting operation was part of an ongoing effort by the Israeli army to deny "enclaves" of Israeli land that fall on the Lebanese side of the border's security fence to the Shiite militant movement Hizbollah.

"Since the 2006 war, we have been aggressively trying to deny these areas to Hizbollah infiltrators," said the officer, a reservist who formerly served full-time along northern border. "It's almost a surprise that it took four years for something like this to happen," he said. "We regularly infiltrate our own troops covertly into these zones to deter Hizbollah from using them as they did regularly in the past. But we and Hizbollah are much more professional and better trained than the Lebanese Army, so that could be why this incident happened."

In a speech that took on additional drama on Tuesday because of events earlier in the day, the Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned that his group's fighters would not sit out another similar incident with the restraint they showed on Tuesday when they let the Lebanese army soldiers handle the fight themselves. "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 by idly," Mr Nasrallah said. "We will cut off the Israeli hand that reaches out to the Lebanese army."

In his speech before thousands of followers at a rally to celebrate the fourth anniversary of what Hizbollah calls the "divine victory" over Israel in their 2006 war, Mr Nasrallah described what he called the "formula" for the Lebanese army's coexistence with Hizbollah militias, which the movement terms the "Resistance". "The LAF protects the Resistance, just as the Resistance protects the LAF, and the Lebanese people protect the LAF and the Resistance," Mr Nasrallah said.

Before the 2006 war, the Lebanese army never deployed to the border area, which was controlled militarily by Hizbollah. As part of the ceasefire agreement that ended those hostilities, thousands of Lebanese soldiers deployed to the area for the first time in nearly 30 years. The relationship between the national army and the much smaller but better trained and equipped guerillas has remained ambiguous until Mr Nasrallah expressed his full support for them on Tuesday.

Lebanese analysts, especially among Hizbollah's political rivals, were cautiously optimistic about Mr Nasrallah's apparent embrace of the Lebanese army. "This was a turning event for him," said Oussama Safa, of the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies. "It serves a point that Nasrallah has been calling for for some time, which is for Hizbollah and the army to work in tandem." One argument by Hizbollah's political opponents has been that the men and weapons of the group should be put under the direct command of the Lebanese army, an arrangement that Mr Nasrallah regularly rejects.

"I don't think [that will happen]. It's not going to go as far as working together, but there may be an ad hoc association to quietly coordinate," Mr Safa said. mprothero@thenational.ae