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Israeli Officers Ambushed on Northern Border

At around 1:30 pm Israel time today (August 3), an exchange of fire took place between Israeli and Lebanese forces along the border. (This map reflects the exact location of the incident.) According to Lebanese sources, the Israelis had gone over the fence and were cutting down a tree growing on Lebanese soil. Lebanese soldiers allegedly fired warning shots in the air and then at the soldiers.

Michel Suleiman, the Lebanese president, issued his own statement denouncing the clash as a violation of UN Resolution 1701 and calling on the Lebanese army to “confront any Israeli aggression, whatever the sacrifices.”

Israeli military sources assert that the work they were doing was routine; that UNIFIL was warned; and that in that place (and many other ones) the fence was deliberately placed inside of Israeli territory so that work on the other side can be conducted without trespassing into Lebanese territory.

Clearing brush is a high priority for Israel because it was precisely by using brush for cover that Hezbollah fighters were able to kidnap Israeli soldiers in the incident that started the hostilities in the summer of 2006.

But today, according to Israeli sources, there was an ambush. Rather than fire in the air and then at the allegedly trespassing soldiers, Lebanese troops fired at a group of officers standing off to the side of the incident and not even over the fence. They killed a reserve lieutenant colonel and badly injured a reserve captain.

Israel responded with light weapons fire, artillery, and a helicopter gunship, killing three Lebanese troops and one journalist. When the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) asked for a cease-fire to evacuate their dead, which Israel granted, they took advantage of the lull to fire an RPG at an Israeli tank.

The journalist, according to the Italian paper Corriere della Sera, worked for the newspaper al-Akhbar. According to Lee Smith, al-Akhbar is a pro-Hezbollah paper whose editor, Ibrahim al-Amin, is generally considered a Hezbollah spokesman.

The presence of a large number of photographers as well as this journalist at the outbreak of the incident suggests that it was prepared in advance, and firing on officers away from the site of the alleged breach further indicates that this was a deliberate act of aggression. IDF sources declined to speculate but said that they were looking into this possibility.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has issued a strongly worded statement: “Israel views this attack on IDF soldiers with utmost gravity.  This was a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution #1701. I hold the Lebanese government directly responsible for this violent provocation against Israel. Israel responded aggressively, and will do so in the future against any attempt to violate the quiet on northern border, and attack residents of the north and the soldiers who are protecting them.”

When asked about the possibility that the Lebanese soldiers involved were Hezbollah, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich of the spokesman’s unit declined to speculate. Leibovich did, however, grant that certain units with the Lebanese army have been strongly influenced by Hezbollah. One blogger noted that the dead were older and heavier than the normal Lebanese army recruit, and Lee Smith remarked that “it is perhaps more accurate to say that the LAF have been entirely penetrated by Hezbollah.”

The role of UNIFIL in the events in question remains cloudy. Several photos show them side by side with RPG-toting Lebanese troops. IDF sources emphasized the close cooperation with them and wondered about the date of the photographs. On the other hand, if they were involved, then Israeli notification of activity may have served as important intelligence in Lebanese planning of the attack.

The possibility that Lebanese troops involved were trained by the U.S., and that the weapons they used were American, further complicates the picture.

Barry Rubin notes that the mainstream news media, in their typical style, as, for example, the New York Times, presented the event as a “he said, she said,” with the overall effect of reinforcing Lebanese claims. AFP, as if to bolster the Lebanese claims, published a photo of the tree-cutting equipment with the soldier over the other side of the fence and the following caption:

Israeli soldiers use a crane as they appear to cut a tree on the Lebanese side of the border in the southern village of Adaisseh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010. Lebanese and Israeli troops exchanged fire on the border Tuesday in the most serious clashes since a fierce war four years ago, authorities said. A Lebanese officer spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines, said the clash occurred as Israeli troops tried to remove a tree from the Lebanese side of the border.(AP Photo/Lutfallah Daher)

Note the use of “appear,” which refers either to the cutting of a tree or “on the Lebanese side of the border,” an implication repeated by quoting a Lebanese officer claiming it was on their side of the border. This, of course, follows in the wake of the MSM’s almost total lack of interest in Israel’s revelations several weeks ago that Hezbollah has dug into civilian areas with their military and their arsenal.

A comparison of the IDF and UNIFIL statements, however, suggests that the Lebanese case of Israeli violations and Lebanese warning shots does not stand up to scrutiny. UNIFIL spokesperson Andrea Tenenti mostly sounds evasively vague.

Some of the best coverage has come from blogs. In particular, Israellycool and the Muqata have live-blogged events.

Speculation on why this occurred today runs the gamut. Some believe that it’s an effort to sabotage the direct negotiations to which the Arab League gave the green light last week and should be seen in the context of yesterday’s rocket attacks from Sinai. Others think it’s an effort by Hezbollah to distract attention from the latest revelations that they were involved in the Hariri assassination. Still others argue it’s related to the latest visit of the Saudis and the Syrians to Lebanon.

In any case, the incident is a reminder of the volatility of the region, how easily it is subject to sabotage, and how readily the MSM will play its role in enabling the most belligerent players.

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