AOL News August 4th, 2010
By Matthew KalmanJERUSALEM (Aug. 4) -- United Nations peacekeepers have exonerated Israel over a border clash that left four Lebanese and one Israeli dead, confirming that Israeli forces clearing bushes along the border fence had not crossed into Lebanese territory when they came under fire.
All five casualties of Tuesday's firefight were buried today in their respective countries.
A spokesman for UNIFIL, the 30,000-member peacekeeping force that helped restore calm after the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, also confirmed today Israel's claim that the routine maintenance work had been coordinated in advance with his forces, and even delayed at the U.N.'s own request so it could get organized.
Mahmoud Zayat, AFP / Getty Images
Nada Ashi, the mother of Lebanese soldier Rupert Ashi, kisses his portrait during his funeral on Wednesday.
"The trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side," said UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti, referring to the U.N.-demarcated boundary established after the 2006 war.
UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas was scheduled to host a meeting between senior officials from the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) at UNIFIL's headquarters in Ras el Naqoura, Lebanon, tonight.
In an interview with the Beirut A-Nahar, a Lebanese military spokesman also confirmed Israel's claim that the Lebanese fired first. But he argued that it was their right "to defend Lebanon's sovereignty."
Milos Strugar, a senior political adviser to UNIFIL, said in an interview with Israel Army Radio that Israel had "informed UNIFIL that it was going to conduct maintenance works" on the border. He acknowledged that the Israeli unit had been "on the northern side of the border fence," but that it was nonetheless "south of the international borderline."
"The Israelis pruned a tree south of the Blue Line," Strugar said. "The IDF coordinated the pruning work with the Lebanese army through UNIFIL."
He warned that tensions along the border had been rising for some time.
"We deal with complaints on provocations of Lebanese soldiers against IDF units on a daily basis," he said, adding that incidents occur "almost every day. There's a lot of tension round the border, but what happened is the worst incident since 2006."
Uriel Sinai, Getty Images
Israeli army officers carry the coffin of Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari during his funeral.
Israel has often cast itself as the victim in various incidents referred to the U.N., but its version of events has seldom been accepted by the international community.
Earlier this week, Israel agreed to a U.N. inquiry into the boarding of a Turkish ship en route to Gaza in May, when nine Turkish activists were killed.
In Tuesday's incident, Israeli commanders say their soldiers walked into a preplanned ambush coordinated by a local Lebanese army officer. They said the unusual presence in an otherwise obscure border village of so many press photographers and reporters -- one of whom was killed in the firefight -- suggested that those behind the ambush had invited the media along to record the event.
The Israeli army says it notified UNIFIL at 6 a.m. Tuesday of its intention to trim or remove a tree across the border security fence, but on the Israeli side of the the U.N.-demarcated international border. UNIFIL asked for a delay of several hours so it could organize its own forces and informed the Lebanese army.
UNIFIL commanders confirmed to the U.N. Security Council late Tuesday that Israel had indeed given advance notification of its plans.
According to Israel, the local Lebanese army commander, a Shia with radical leanings but not a member of Hezbollah, decided to use UNIFIL's delay to plan an ambush, deployed troops firing rocket-propelled grenades and snipers, and invited the media to cover it.
The Israelis are blaming the local Lebanese commander -- and also their own military intelligence -- for failing to know about the Lebanese army plans. Israeli officials went out of their way to say that Hezbollah, until now Israel's main enemy in Lebanon, was not involved.
Israeli army spokesman Maj. Avital Leibovitch told AOL News that the Israeli colonel who died was standing on a small hill at least 30 meters from the soldiers when he was hit by sniper fire. A captain standing alongside him was wounded.
"There appeared to a team of snipers," Leibovitch said. "The colonel who lost his life received a direct wound to the head. Both commanders were very well equipped with helmets and flak jackets. The snipers knew exactly where to hit them. The distance there between our security fence and the Blue Line is 200 to 300 meters."
She said the reason for the tree cutting was to prevent Hezbollah from operating too close to the security fence.
"We have been clearing bushes along the border for the past year," Leibovitch said. "It's not something new that began yesterday. Let me take you back to 2006 with the kidnapping of the soldiers. In that area, the terrorists hid behind bushes very similar to the ones we took down yesterday. This is one of the reasons why we conduct this maintenance work."