UNIFIL: IDF Did Not Enter Lebanese Territory

Jerusalem: UN findings support Israeli version of events; Jordan rejects suggestions of Lebanese aggression; hundreds attend funeral of IDF officer.

Israeli troops clearing a tree obstructing surveillance of the Lebanese border did not leave Israeli territory, the United Nations force tasked with monitoring the contentious frontier said yesterday.

"The trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side," said Lt. Naresh Bhatt, a spokesman for UNIFIL, the UN Interim Force in Lebanon.

UNIFIL said its officers were continuing to investigate the events leading to the cross-border skirmish that left one Israeli officer and three Lebanese dead, and another Israeli officer hospitalized.

Lebanese media gave extensive coverage to the confrontation, with most print and television outlets expressing almost complete agreement with the Lebanese troops' decision to open fire.

In Beirut, Information Minister Tareq Mitri acknowledged that the area was south of the line, but said it was still Lebanese territory.

Jordanian Prime Minister Samir Rifai spoke with his Lebanese counterpart Saad Hariri to emphasize his government's support for Beirut.

"Rifai expressed Jordan's support for Lebanon, saying the kingdom rejects any aggression against Lebanon," Jordan's state-run Petra news agency said. "He and Hariri stressed the need to avert more conflicts in the region that would obstruct peace efforts."

Hezbollah party deputy chief Naim Qassem said yesterday that his organization has the capacity to strike at the heart of Israel if attacked.

"Israel must understand that any aggression on Lebanon, no matter how small, gives us the complete right to retaliate when and how we find appropriate and in line with Lebanon's political interests," he told Agence France Presse in an interview.

Yesterday the Israel Defense Forces unit that had begun clearing the underbrush completed its work. Lebanese and UNIFIL troops again observed the operation, but this time no shots were fired on either side.

Picture emerges of preplanned attack

Additional details have emerged over what the army claims were Lebanese forces' plans to target Israeli troops operating along the border.

Tuesday's clash started after an Israeli soldier on a crane dangled over a fence near the border early to trim a tree that could provide cover for infiltrators. The IDF said it does such work at least once a week and coordinates its actions with UNIFIL.

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 a base some distance away, where Lt. Col. Dov Harari was killed by another officer seriously wounded.

"Our coordination ahead of time was cynically exploited by the Lebanese Army," said Lt. Col. Ilan Dikstein, deputy commander of the unit supervising the operation. "They were shooting from behind UNIFIL troops and civilians."

Dikstein said that he had been coordinating the brush-clearing mission with UNIFIL when the shots rang out, and had even pointed to the tree troops had planned to reach with the crane.

IDF officials placed blame for the incident squarely on the Lebanese military, despite reported links between the commander of the company involved in the skirmish to Hezbollah. "This wasn't a random incident of one soldier or some crazy private," Dikstein said. "This was a preplanned army operation. All indications are that this was premeditated."

Spokesmen for the Prime Minister's Office and Foreign Ministry told foreign reporters yesterday that they too hold Lebanon to blame for the incident. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said UNIFIL's findings back Israel's view that the "Lebanese attack on our forces was both unprovoked and unjustified."

Hundreds of mourners gathered in the Netanya military cemetery for Harari's funeral yesterday. Among those in attendance were GOC Northern Command Gadi Eizenkot.

Funeral of Dov Harari
Alon Ron

A family friend delivered a eulogy written by Harari's 18-year-old daughter Noy: "I can't believe I won't see you again, that you won't hug or kiss me, or that you won't get to see me in uniform in a few months."

The condition of Capt. Ezra Lakiya, seriously hurt in the incident, has significantly improved, doctors at Haifa's Rambam Medical Center said, noting that he was transferred yesterday from the hospital's intensive care unit to its surgical ward.

Referring to the unit's late commander by his nickname, Lakiya said, "I'd like to send my condolences to the Harari family on the loss of Beri, a great leader. It's no wonder officers were injured during this operation. That's how it is in the IDF - officers spearhead the operation, and Beri set a personal example, leading the unit to complete the mission. Even without a commander, the troops took the initiative and returned fire."

Ezra Lakiya