“Israeli soldiers are targeting journalists. No one here knows what will happen”

BEIRUT: Two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist were killed on Tuesday as the Army and Israel exchanged fire in the fiercest clashes between the two countries since the 2006 war.

Fighting broke out near the village of Adaysseh, close to the Blue Line, after an Israeli Army patrol attempted to cut down a tree in Lebanese territory, prompting fire from nearby Lebanese Army positions. Israel responded with rocket salvos aimed at an armored patrol vehicle inside the village, killing two Lebanese troops Abdullah Tufeili and Robert al-Ashi.

The Israeli Army confirmed that one officer – identified as Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari – was killed and two troops seriously wounded during in the clash. Assaf Abu Rahhal, who wrote for Al-Akbar newspaper, was identified as the reporter who was killed.

Five other people were also wounded in the bombardment.

Witnesses said Israeli artillery also fired at the village.

“It started when the Israelis wanted to cut down a tree inside Lebanon. The Lebanese Army fired warning shots at them and they responded by shelling,” said a Lebanese security source.

The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), which had patrols in the vicinity, called on both sides to exercise “maximum restraint” in order to contain the situation.

“UNIFIL has been focused on restoring calm in the area through intensive contacts with both the parties,” spokesperson Neeraj Singh told The Daily Star.

He added that Acting Force Commander Brigadier General Santi Bonfanti flew personally to the clash site in a bid to restore calm. Several hours after the artillery battle, relative quiet had returned to Adaysseh.

It was the first case of casualties sustained by both sides since the end of the Israel’s 2006 war against Lebanon which killed more than 1,200 Lebanese – mostly civilians – and 160 Israelis – mostly soldiers. Hizbullah was not involved in Tuesday’s fighting.

President Michel Sleiman convened an emergency session at Baabda Palace of the Higher Defense Council, which gave orders to the Lebanese Army to counter any Israeli attack. Army Commander General Jean Kahwaji briefed council members on the reasons behind the incident and concluded that Israel was responsible “for all [resulting] damage.”

“After consultations, the council has … given instructions to face all aggressions on our territory, army and people by all available means and no matter the sacrifices,” General Said Eid said after the meeting.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is on holiday in Sardinia, spoke by telephone with several domestic and international officials regarding the clash, including French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa.

The “violation of Lebanese sovereignty demands that the United Nations and the international community bear their responsibilities and pressure Israel to stop its aggression,” a release from Hariri’s office read.

In addition, Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami convened a meeting with the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Michael Williams and ambassadors from the five permanent Security Council members.

The Security Council met in New York to discuss the clash, stating it was “deeply concerned” about developments.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Tel Aviv would hold the Lebanese government culpable for the death of its soldier.

“Israel views the Lebanese government as responsible for this serious incident and is warning of the ramifications if the violations continue,” the ministry said in a statement.

But a spokesman for Israel’s army said Tuesday’s altercation was a one-off occurrence.

“I believe this is a one-time event. We received requests and demands from the highest ranks in the Lebanese Army to cease fire,” Major General Gadi Eisenkot, head of the Israeli military’s northern command, told reporters at a base near the Blue Line.

Damascus strongly rebuked Israel for what it termed “heinous aggression” in Adaysseh.

Syrian President Bashar Assad telephoned Sleiman to express solidarity with Lebanon in the face of Israeli threats. “Assad considered that this aggression proves once more that Israel has always been seeking to destabilize security and stability in Lebanon and the region,” the state-run SANA news agency reported.

Hizbullah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech to supporters in south Beirut and warned that the party was poised to assist the army against Israel.

“The Resistance will cut the hand of anyone who dares attack the Lebanese Army,” Nasrallah said.

The exact circumstances leading up to the outbreak of gun and artillery fire were unknown Tuesday night. The Lebanese Army General Command issued a statement which alleged Israeli troops had crossed into south Lebanon.

“An Israeli enemy patrol crossed on Tuesday the Blue Line at the Lebanese-Palestinian borders surrounding Adaysseh town,” the statement said. “The enemy’s patrol, however, went forward despite the UNIFIL’s intervention to stop it.

“Hence, the Lebanese Army confronted the enemy’s forces with weapons and rocket-propelled grenades.”

The press office of the Israeli Army said that its patrol “was in Israeli territory, carrying out routine maintenance and was pre-coordinated with UNIFIL.”

“The [tree-cutting] incident occurred west of the internationally recognized Blue Line and east of the security fence, thus lying in Israeli territory,” it added.

Singh told The Daily Star that UNIFIL was unaware of any coordination between Israel and its peacekeeping contingent, but stressed an investigation was ongoing.

“This is something that of course needs to be investigated, and we have to have all the facts. We can only talk about our position without additional details,” he said.

The original altercation took place in a location where the Blue Line – the UN-demarcated line of Israeli military withdrawal from Lebanon – separates from a specially constructed Israeli technical fence. The discrepancy has drawn controversy in the past, with the Lebanese Army claiming Israel breached its sovereignty while the UN and Israel claim only the fence had been crossed.

Potentially crucial is the fact that a Beirut correspondent for Al-Jazeera reported that the Lebanese Army on Sunday rejected a request from Israel to carry out the tree cutting.

Several NGOs operating in south Lebanon were evacuated from close to the Blue Line and will not work tomorrow. A source at one international organization, speaking anonymously, told The Daily Star that the situation in the south was deteriorating.

“[Israeli soldiers] are targeting journalists. No one here knows what will happen,” the source said during the bombardment. – With agencies


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