U.S.: Lebanese Fire on Israeli Troops Was Totally Unjustified

U.S. State Department assigns blame for clash that left one Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist dead, after Israeli disappointment with 'neutral' U.S. response the previous day.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Wednesday that the firing by Lebanese armed forces on Israeli troops near the Israel-Lebanon border on Tuesday, which killed one Israeli officer and seriously wounded another, was "totally unjustified and unwarranted" while calling on both sides to show restraint.

Exchange of fire on the border between Israel and Lebanon - August 3, 2010

The Lebanese shooting on Tuesday prompted an Israeli response which left two Lebanese soldiers dead, as well as a Lebanese journalist.

"We don't want to see this happen again," the State Department spokesman said, echoing sentiments he had voiced the previous day. Israeli officials expressed disappointment on Tuesday with the U.S.'s "neutral" response to the shooting incident, in calling on both sides to show restraint. The U.S.'s failure to assign blame on Tuesday prompted Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren to hold talks with senior administration officials, demanding a harsher response.

Crowley did point the finger at the Lebanese army, but was careful to voice support for the Lebanese side as well, saying "we support the government of Lebanon. We support efforts by Lebanon to increase its ability to exercise its sovereignty over its entire country."

"We appreciate the work of the United Nations both to hold this meeting today, you know, to create the cease-fire yesterday. We're going to be working intensively to see that tensions along this border are eased.‬"

After nightfall on Wednesday, representatives of the Israeli and Lebanese armies met with UN peacekeepers to settle the dispute over who had provoked the clash. Israeli officials have called the incident a deliberate ambush. The Lebanese have argued that Israeli soldiers had encroached on Lebanese territory.

In a statement afterward, peace force commander Maj. Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas said he called for restraint from all sides and avoidance of avoid any action that could serve to heighten tensions. He said UNIFIL was still investigating the clash, but preliminary findings were presented at the meeting. The statement gave no details.

UNIFIL's monthly meeting was brought forward to defuse the crisis, UNIFIL officials said.

The clash started after an Israeli soldier on a crane dangled over a fence near the border early Tuesday to trim a tree that could provide cover for infiltrators. The Israelis said they clear such underbrush at least once a week and coordinate their actions with UNIFIL, the peacekeeping force that has been in the area for more than 30 years.

This time the tree trimming was followed by gunfire from the Lebanese army, apparently aimed not at the soldier hanging over the fence, but at an observation post some 300 meters into Israeli territory, where the Israeli officers were hit.

On Wednesday the UN ruled that the tree, while across the fence, was inside Israeli territory. The UN drew the border line in 2000 after Israel withdrew its forces from south Lebanon after an 18-year occupation that followed its invasion in 1982 to fight Palestinian forces and try to install a pro-Israel government in Beirut.

"UNIFIL established ... that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line [border] on the Israeli side," said force spokesman Lt. Naresh Bhatt.

Crowley said later "We appreciate the work of the United Nations both in the meeting today and creating the cease-fire yesterday. We're going to be working intensively to see that tensions along this border are eased."