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5 dead in Israel-Lebanon skirmish

U.S. ‘concerned’ by border tensions

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Tempers flared in the Middle East on Tuesday after a morning border skirmish between Israeli and Lebanese soldiers left four Lebanese and one Israeli dead.

Details were murky, but the incident apparently began after Lebanese soldiers spotted Israeli soldiers trimming hedges on their side of the border fence.

Israel claims that this section lies within its territory and that the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had been informed of the planned maintenance, though Lebanon disputes the account.

"Israel views the attack on IDF soldiers with extreme severity," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling the Lebanese government "directly responsible for this violent provocation against Israel."

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri accused Israel of "a violation of Lebanese sovereignty," and President Michel Suleiman said Israeli aggression "needs to be confronted, whatever the sacrifices are."

In a televised address Tuesday night, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called the Lebanese army "heroic," saying that "this time we stood and watched … next [time] we will not."

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the U.S. was "extremely concerned" about Tuesday's developments and was in close touch with both governments.

The deadly incident comes four years after another summer skirmish — a cross-border raid in which Hezbollah fighters killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others — sparked a 34-day war that claimed more than 1,000 lives, mostly on the Lebanese side.

The border has been relatively quiet since that conflagration, with rare Hezbollah rocket attacks on northern Israel, but Tuesday's incident raised fears that a renewed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah could draw in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), which remained on the sidelines during the 2006 conflict.

"Especially after today, I would expect Israel to go after the Lebanese government, military and infrastructural targets, and Israel has said as much," said Daniel Levy, co-director of the New America Foundation's Middle East Task Force. "And I would expect the LAF not to be a bystander."

Mr. Levy, who previously served as an adviser to several Israeli officials, said he believes Israel could not necessarily count again on the silence of the pro-Western Sunni Arab states — "especially the Saudis."

Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said any tensions with Israel were bound to have a unifying effect — both on Lebanon's highly fractious population of Sunnis, Shiites and Christians, and on the wider Arab world.

"Recall that in 2006, during the war, actually all of Lebanon rallied behind Hezbollah," Mr. Telhami said.

Initially, "it looked like the Lebanese government — and the Lebanese coalition, broadly — saw an opportunity to weaken Hezbollah, but that quickly disappeared when they discovered how powerful Hezbollah is within Lebanon itself," he said.

Mr. Telhami, who conducts a highly regarded survey of Arab public opinion every year, said his research showed that "after 2006, Nasrallah was the most popular man in Arab world — including the Sunni Arab world."

The New America Foundation's Mr. Levy said Tuesday's incident could prove a blessing in disguise for the region, noting that Israel-Lebanon border tensions had not been particularly high on the "radar screen" of the Americans and Europeans, given their focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and the Iranian nuclear program.

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