Flare-up over tree accents Israel-Lebanon tension

It took no more than cutting down a tree to shatter four years of calm on the Israel-Lebanon border.

Jerusalem: It took no more than cutting down a tree to shatter four years of calm on the Israel-Lebanon border.

With Israel uneasy about the growing arsenal of Hezbollah, the real power in the Lebanese border area, and Lebanon influenced by the Iranian-backed group`s clout, the clash that left four dead showed how a small spark could ignite another war.

On Wednesday all sides appeared to be trying to restore calm, but the key was clearly in the hands of Hezbollah.

Had it entered the fray with a rocket attack on Israel`s north, Israel would likely have retaliated, and another round of Mideast violence would have been under way — following the pattern of the monthlong conflict in 2006, when Hezbollah fired almost 4,000 rockets as Israel`s military bombed strategic targets all over Lebanon and swept through the border area.

Instead, Hezbollah sufficed with threats against Israel, and after nightfall Wednesday, representatives of the Israeli and Lebanese armies met with U.N. peacekeepers.

In a statement afterward, peace force commander Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas said he called for restraint from all sides and avoidance of " any action that could serve to heighten tensions." He said UNIFIL was still investigating the clash, but preliminary findings were presented at the meeting. The statement gave no details.

The monthly meeting was brought forward to defuse the crisis, UNIFIL officials said.

The clash started after an Israeli soldier on a crane dangled over a fence near the border early Tuesday to trim a tree that could provide cover for infiltrators. The Israelis said they clear such underbrush at least once a week and coordinate their actions with UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force that has been in the area for more than 30 years.

This time the tree trimming was followed by gunfire from the Lebanese army, apparently aimed not at the soldier hanging over the fence, but at a base some distance away, where a senior officer was killed by a shot to the head. Another officer was wounded. Israel responded with gunfire and shelling, killing two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.

On Wednesday the U.N. ruled that the tree, while across the fence, was inside Israeli territory. The U.N. drew the border line in 2000 after Israel withdrew its forces from south Lebanon after an 18-year occupation that followed its invasion in 1982 to fight Palestinian forces and try to install a pro-Israel government in Beirut.

"UNIFIL established ... that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line (border) on the Israeli side," said force spokesman Lt. Naresh Bhatt.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.N. finding was conclusive. "The firing by Lebanese armed forces was totally unjustified and unwarranted," he said, while calling on both sides to show restraint.

Even so, Lebanon still considers the tree-trimming a provocation, saying its soldiers fired warning shots after the Israelis ignored requests from UNIFIL to stop cutting the tree, and Israel retaliated.
Information Minister Tarek Mitri said Lebanon respects the border but still contests part of it, insisting that the fateful cypress tree, while on the Israeli side of the border, "is Lebanese territory."

Israel was having none of that, charging that the attack was unprovoked aggression. In a televised statement Wednesday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talked tough.

Bureau Report

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