Flare-up over tree accents Israel-Lebanon tension
JERUSALEM (AP) -- 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 "avoid 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.
Israel will retaliate for every attack, he said. "Don't test our determination to protect the citizens of Israel and its soldiers."
Despite that, neither side appeared interested in fanning the flames, and this time, Hezbollah stayed on the sidelines.
The guerrilla group sprang out of resistance to the Israeli occupation in the mid-1980s and morphed into a political force in Lebanon, holding a key position in the government while virtually controlling its border stronghold.
Hezbollah has long been considered mainly as Iran's militant arm in Lebanon running its own state-within-a-state. The group remains fiercely anti-Israel and is highly unlikely to give up its extensive arsenal of rockets and other weapons.
But Hezbollah seems concerned these days with its position at home, trying to show it can work with Lebanon's many other factions.
While Lebanon's leaders have to contend with Hezbollah as a political force, Israel considers it a military threat.
In recent weeks Israel's military has charged that Hezbollah has 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, including Scud rockets that could hit Israel's main population centers. The conventional wisdom in Israel is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable.
Peter Harling, a Syria-based Mideast analyst with the International Crisis Group, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that Hezbollah's enhanced political status could rein in its desire to hit back at Israel.
"Hezbollah is keen for now to avoid an escalation, knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement and Lebanon, and more broadly to the region," he said.
Even so, a report his group issued this week said tensions are mounting in the region "with no obvious safety valve."
On Israel's border with Lebanon Wednesday, apple farmer Adi Amitai said he often waves to the Lebanese soldiers in clear view from his orchard, and they wave back. He said Israel ordered farmers to stay home Wednesday.
When he goes back to his apple trees on Thursday, he told Israel Radio, "I'll still wave, but with suspicion."