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Lebanese soldiers take up position as UN peacekeepers (in blue berets) gesture towards Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese-Israeli border in southern Lebanon. (STR/Reuters)
Lebanese soldiers take up position as UN peacekeepers (in blue berets) gesture towards Israeli soldiers at the Lebanese-Israeli border in southern Lebanon. (STR/Reuters)

Deadly skirmish raises stakes in Israel-Lebanon conflict of nerves Add to ...

An unexpected clash on the Lebanese-Israeli border left at least four people dead and everyone else wondering if the hair-trigger atmosphere between the two sides would lead to an escalation of violence.

Hezbollah played no official part in the latest deadly firefight, but nerves are on edge as it is expected that members of the militant Shia organization soon will be indicted for the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

And the last time an Israeli soldier was killed on the country's northern border with Lebanon, it triggered a month-long war that left more than 1,500 people dead.

It was July, 2006, and Hezbollah staged a raid on a routine Israeli patrol, killing three soldiers and dragging two others back into Lebanon. (They later perished.) The response by the government of Ehud Olmert was immediate.

Within hours, the Israelis unleashed a barrage of missiles and a fleet of jet fighters that wreaked havoc across Lebanon, destroying infrastructure and leaving scores dead. In the 33 days that followed, damage to Lebanon was considerable and more than 1,100 Lebanese civilians were killed. Some 165 Israelis were killed either in the fighting on the ground or by missiles launched by Hezbollah on Israeli urban areas.

This time, however, things were different. It was not Hezbollah that fired on Israelis on Tuesday, but regular Lebanese forces, the forces that Israel had insisted replace Hezbollah on the border. As well, no Israelis were dragged back to Lebanon.

Indeed, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced late Tuesday that his militants had been ordered not to react to the day's events. "We told our militants to hold back, not to do anything," Sheik Nasrallah said in a speech transmitted via video link to thousands of supporters in Beirut's southern suburbs.

"We informed the [Lebanese]President that we will take no action," he said.

Lebanese Hezbollah supporters wave the movement's yellow flag alongside their national flags in southern Beirut as the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah delivers a televised address.

Sheik Nasrallah went on to warn Israelis that his forces were prepared to act if Israel attacked again. "The Israeli hand that targets the Lebanese army will be cut off," he said.

Tuesday's clash was, if anything, more intense than the original 2006 incident. Two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist, as well as an Israeli officer were killed in the exchange of fire, and another Israeli officer was seriously wounded. But, significantly, the Israeli response was localized. Unlike four years ago, there was no evidence that Israel was determined to rush into war. Neither is there evidence that Lebanon seeks a fight.

Tuesday's clash was apparently triggered when Israeli forces entered an enclave that lies between the Israeli security line and the "Blue Line," established by the United Nations in the late 1940s as a temporary division between Lebanon and Israel (until a final border was agreed on).

In recent months, the number of Israeli entries into these enclaves has increased and has become a growing source of irritation for the Lebanese. According to Amos Harel, military analyst for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, "there is always the danger that an altercation will break out over which side of the border the IDF forces are located, since each state has a different interpretation of the exact location of the border."

That appears to be just what happened, as Israeli forces attempted to cut down a tree they claim was blocking a surveillance camera, but which Lebanon says was inside its territory.

Israel insists that Lebanon violated UN Resolution 1701 that ended the 2006 conflict.

"We're talking about a very grave incident in which two commanders were hit," Israeli Major-General Gadi Eisenkot told reporters in the northern border town of Kiryat Shmona. "There was a premeditated ambush by a squad of snipers that fired at the commanders who were standing next to a [military] post clearly within our territory," he said.

When the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war ended, both sides claimed victory, but it was Sheik Nasrallah who was toasted throughout the region as the man whose forces had sent the Israeli troops packing.

Bruised by their mixed results, Israel launched an inquiry into what went wrong and the country's defence minister and military chief of staff resigned.

But then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, who left office last year, clung to the belief that Israel's action had made the northern border quiet.

"This was the most successful war in the country's history, except for the [1948-49]War of Independence," he told this reporter on one of his last days as prime minister.

"Not one bullet has been fired across that border since our action," he said.

Not one bullet - until Tuesday.

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