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The serious firefight that developed Tuesday between Israel and Lebanon is like a match that can ignite a blaze. Lt. Col. Dov Harari was killed and Capt. Ezra Lakiya was seriously wounded, and three Lebanese were killed. That is a serious outcome in and of itself, but the incident had the threatening potential of widespread deterioration, and even war.

There's no dispute, even according to the United Nations, that Israel was operating on its own territory. If Lebanon disagreed with the way the area was marked, or opposed Israel Defense Forces operations there, it could have contacted UN liaison officers. In contrast to other IDF operations in Lebanese territory, it appears that this time there was no violation of UN Resolution 1701, as claimed by Lebanon, which does not strictly adhere to the resolution itself and appears to be unable to carry out all its provisions.

At the same time, the government and the IDF have for several months been preparing the Israeli public for the possibility of a war in the north. They are aware of the tremendous political tension in Lebanon, of the struggle Hezbollah is waging against accusations of murdering former prime minister Rafik Hariri more than five years ago, and of the massive diplomatic effort by Saudi Arabia to steady the situation in Lebanon.

This awareness should have led the government and the IDF to consider more carefully when to cut down a tree near the border. Operation Exposure, as the army is calling the tree cutting, may be necessary to give IDF troops a good view of what is happening in Lebanese territory, but when such an operation can trigger a war, the benefits must be weighed against the risks.

It is hoped that the Lebanese government and army will not draw the wrong conclusions from the incident, or from the words of support and praise they received from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

At the same time, the Israeli government must act to strengthen the liaison arrangements with the Lebanese government and the United Nations, and most of all understand that the Israel-Lebanon border is like no other. This is a border that does not forgive mistakes or rash considerations.

The government and the IDF must understand that not every time is right for demonstrating Israeli sovereignty right up to the last millimeter, certainly not when tension is rising on both sides of the border. Employing restraint and waiting at such a time are not an expression of weakness, but of wisdom and political sensitivity.