One of the most volatile borders in the world erupted with a deadly clash between Lebanese and Israeli troops yesterday, four years after the end of a month-long war between Israel and the group Hizbollah. In the most serious confrontation between the neighbours since the 2006 war, the Lebanese soldiers opened fire on an Israeli military patrol operating along the border, sparking a three-hour clash that left a high-ranking Israeli officer and at least two Lebanese soldiers and one civilian dead.
The incident, which came after months of speculation about renewed hostilities, increased fears of a wider confrontation that could include Hizbollah. The UN urged "maximum restraint" and said it was working with both sides to restore calm. At the same time, the Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, along with Iran, an ally of the powerful Shiite group, said his country would provide Lebanon with any necessary support, the Syrian news agency Sana reported. A spokesman for the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) told The National yesterday on condition of anonymity that several Israeli soldiers were badly wounded in the first exchange of small-arms fire that escalated into a series of artillery and helicopter strikes against Lebanese army positions.
Lebanese television news reported that an operation to recover an officer's body was conducted with close air support provided by Apache attack helicopters. Col Ali Noureddine, a top intelligence official with the Lebanese army confirmed the deaths of the two Lebanese soldiers. The IDF confirmed yesterday that the high-ranking Israeli officer killed in the fighting was a battalion commander. Another officer was badly wounded, it said.
Peacekeepers from the UN interim force in Lebanon (Unifil), a 12,000-strong multinational military unit assigned with keeping order along the border, attempted to intervene during the clash. Lebanese reports said the incident began when Israeli soldiers attempted to cut down a tree at the border. Members of the Indonesian Unifil battalion assigned to the area around the village of Aadaysie could be seen on TV waving white flags in the direction of IDF soldiers and vehicles in an effort to stop the clashes, but eventually withdrew after Israeli artillery fire targeted the Lebanese armed forces units nearby.
Concerns that Hizbollah, which controls much of south Lebanon and all of the village of Aadaysie, might enter the fight first arose after the Israeli media reported two rocket strikes from Lebanon. Both the Israeli police and Hizbollah denied that rockets had been fired into Israel. The Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfield also said the government was not asking residents to take cover or evacuate the area. In Lebanon, a Hizbollah military commander said the group believed the IDF was trying to provoke a response from its fighters but that no shots had been fired. The military commander, who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, also said the organisation's offices in the southern suburbs of Beirut had been evacuated and its fighters were put on high alert nationwide. The Lebanese civilian killed during the fighting was identified as Assaf Abu Rahal, 55, a reporter for the daily newspaper Al Akhbar. Not surprisingly, Hizbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah voiced defiance last night. "Lebanon is not going to forgive or permit any violation on its land. We in Lebanon are not afraid of you, you are the one who is threatening war all the time," he said at a rally marking the fourth anniversary of the 2006 war. "Today we were baptised with blood again and the Lebanese army proved their manhood exactly like in July 2006." The speech, which was to be his fourth in the past three weeks, was expected to take up the issue of the UN Special Tribunal, which is charged with prosecuting those responsible for the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Mr Hariri's death was initially blamed on Syria, but recent reports have indicated that the tribunal would accuse members of Hizbollah of the crime. The indictments are expected within months. In his earlier speeches, Mr Nasrallah attacked the investigation as an "Israeli plot", and claimed that Hariri's son, the current prime minister Saad Hariri, had assured him that he would disavow any indicted individuals as "rogue members" of the party. Mr Nasrallah's most recent speech comes after a weekend of intense speculation over the tribunal's outcome, particularly how the prime minister will respond to any indictments against Hizbollah. Mr Hariri and his March 14 political coalition may face a troubling decision if it looks like pursuing the charges could inflame tensions with Hizbollah and possibly lead to violence. "Now Hizbollah is in a corner it seems, but also March 14 is in a weak position," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for the March 14-oriented newspaper An Nahar. "They cannot confront Hizbollah because that could mean conflict will begin and no one knows where it will end." Last Friday, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Mr Assad travelled together to Beirut for a summit with Mr Hariri and other top Lebanese officials. The trip was Mr Assad's first to Beirut since the assassination of Hariri. Officials have been tight-lipped about what messages were delivered during the visit, which lasted just a few hours but it is generally assumed to have been partly an attempt to publicly quell fears of violent repercussions should Hizbollah be indicted by the tribunal. The meetings frustrated some Christian members of Mr Hariri's March 14 alliance, who felt disregarded and who worried the prime minister might turn his back on the tribunal. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, told An Nahar on Sunday that the decision to exclude him and the Kataeb leader Amin Gemayel from Friday's event was "unacceptable". "It shows that some things have returned to what they used to be," Mr Geagea said, alluding to the Muslim-Christian divide that plagued Lebanon during its civil war in the 1970s and 1980s. Serge Dagher, a spokesman for Kataeb, said this week that if his party was disappointed with the Friday meetings, it was chiefly because they considered them "a missed opportunity" dominated by a "three-hour PR lunch". "If you want to have a serious meeting, maybe the meeting should have involved all the parties that have some problems with Syria," Mr Dagher said. March 14 leaders have tried to tone down the rhetoric and on Monday, Moustafa Alloush, a former MP from Mr Hariri's Sunni Future Movement, said that the coalition had decided to say nothing more publicly about the tribunal. "We consider it counterproductive and useless," Mr Alloush said. "A major aim of March 14 is to ensure stability and we think stopping talking will do that." Meanwhile, analysts say, Mr Nasrallah seems to be taking a different tack: directly confronting the impending charges, in the hopes of mitigating their impact. "I think [Mr Nasrallah's] strategy is pretty clear," says Elias Muhanna, a Lebanese blogger and political analyst. "He's trying to get out in front of the story so he can control it in some way and can soften it, and so when indictments come out his followers can say, Well, we already knew that." A spokesman for Hizbollah said Mr Nasrallah would hold another press conference about the tribunal in the coming days. "If you want to have a serious meeting, maybe the meeting should have involved all the parties that have some problems with Syria," Mr Dagher said. March 14 leaders have tried to tone down the rhetoric. On Monday, Moustafa Alloush, a former MP from Mr Hariri's Sunni Future Movement, said that the coalition had decided to say nothing more publicly about the tribunal. email@example.com