- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 4, 2010

DEIR EL-ZAHRANI, Lebanon (AP) — U.N. peacekeepers said Wednesday a cypress tree an Israeli soldier was cutting down just before a border clash with Lebanese soldiers erupted was in Israeli territory, contradicting Lebanese claims that their frontier was breached.

The clash Tuesday left a senior Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist dead and was the most serious since Israel and the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah fought a brief war in 2006. It was a stark reminder of how volatile the border remains, even though both sides appeared to be trying to restore calm and prevent an escalation.

The Israeli soldier was cutting down the tree — something Israel does occasionally to improve its sight line into Lebanon — when Lebanese forces opened fire. The Lebanese army and a witness said U.N. peacekeepers intervened to ask the Israeli to stop cutting the tree, but Israel refused. UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, has not commented on that.

Both sides claimed the tree was in their territory.

Lebanon acknowledged Wednesday that the tree was south of an official, U.N.-drawn boundary known as the Blue Line separating the countries. The line was drawn in 2000 following the end of a two-decade Israeli occupation of south Lebanon that began with a war in 1982.

However Lebanese Information Minister Tarek Mitri said his country disputes the Blue Line demarcation in certain areas, including the village of Adeisseh where the clash took place, and saw Israel’s act in as a clear provocation.

UNIFIL established, however, that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side,” said force spokesman Lt. Naresh Bhatt. He said the peacekeepers were still investigating the clash.

Israel said the U.N. announcement clearly corroborated its version of events.

“Our routine activity yesterday was conducted entirely south of the frontier on the Israeli side and that the Lebanese Army opened fire without any provocation or justification whatsoever,” government spokesman Mark Regev said.

Tensions along the border have risen in recent months. Israel claims Hezbollah, a powerful force within Lebanon, has significantly expanded and improved its arsenal of rockets since their 2006 war with help from its allies Syria and Iran.

However, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak sought Wednesday to calm the situation.

“I hope we will have a quiet summer and things will return to their normal course,” he told Israel Radio.

An Israeli military spokesman said the army was continuing operations as usual in the area and pruning more trees on Wednesday. He spoke on condition of anonymity in line with military regulations.

Mitri, the Lebanese minister, said Lebanon had been notified in advance of Wednesday’s pruning under UNIFIL supervision and approved it. He said if Israel had done the same on Tuesday, “we wouldn’t have had the escalation.”

Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Andy David said the army was surprised by the violence because Israel carries out maintenance on the border regularly.

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