A deadly flare-up of tensions along the Israel- Lebanon border killed four people Tuesday, heightening fears of renewed warfare between the nations.
The dead included two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist, according to Arab news reports. Israel confirmed that one of its soldiers was killed.
The violence — the worst since the end of the 2006 war between Israel and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — comes amid an atmosphere of rising rhetoric. In recent months, the two countries have accused each other of border incursions and of violating an internationally monitored peace deal that ended the conflict four years ago.
That month-long war, which left 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis dead, was triggered by a cross-border raid by Hezbollah militants who killed eight Israeli soldiers and captured two others.
But some experts expressed doubt that Tuesday’s clash would spark a similar conflict.
“Both sides will find a way to calm it down because it’s in their interests to do so,” said Meir Elran, military analyst at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, a research group.
Both countries have created strong deterrents to prevent another war. Israel recently announced that it had identified dozens of potential Hezbollah targets to strike in southern Lebanon and warned that it would also attack Lebanese government institutions in other parts of the country in the event of another clash with Hezbollah.
At the same time, Hezbollah, which Israel says is being armed by Syria and Iran, has assembled a stockpile of more than 40,000 rockets to aim at Israeli cities.
“Neither Israel, Lebanon, or Hezbollah want war because they know it would be devastating,” said Sahar Atrache, an analyst in Beirut with the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution think tank.
The skirmish Tuesday began when Israeli soldiers were conducting activities along the border area, Israeli military officials said. There are conflicting reports as to whether the Israelis were installing a surveillance camera on a fence or digging up a tree.
Lebanese officials said Israelis had crossed the border into Lebanon. Israeli military officials denied the claim, saying the soldiers were in Israeli territory and had cleared their movement with U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the area.
Lebanese soldiers said they fired warning shots and then attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Israeli officials said their soldiers were ambushed by snipers, which they said suggested a planned attack.
“This looked like a premeditated attack,” said Israeli military spokesman Capt. Barak Raz. “Commanders were the ones being targeted.”
Israeli soldiers said they returned fire with light arms and artillery, and then dispatched helicopters several minutes later to attack a Lebanese command center, damaging several armored combat vehicles. Lebanese officials say civilian homes were also damaged.
Officials with UNIFIL, the United Nations mission that has dispatched about 12,000 soldiers to maintain peace along the border, called for “maximum restraint.”
“We are focused on restoring calm in the area,” said U.N. spokesman Neeraj Singh. “Our peacekeepers in the area are trying to determine the circumstances of the incident and possible casualties.”
The incident occurred near the town of Adessa, toward the eastern end of the border, U.N. officials said.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri demanded that the U.N. investigate what he called the “Israeli aggression against the Lebanese army” and Israel’s “scandalous violation” of Resolution 1701, the U.N. agreement reached at the end of the 2006 war.
Israel, in turn, has accused Lebanon of violating the U.N. agreement by allowing Hezbollah to rebuild its military arsenal.
“Israel holds the Lebanese government responsible for the grave incident, and warns of the consequences should these continue,” Israel’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Among the dead, according to Lebanese media, was a journalist from Lebanon’s Al Akhbar newspaper.
Israel identified its slain soldier as Lt. Col. Dov Harari, 45, a battalion commander. It was Israel’s first death along the border since 2006. A second soldier was critically injured, officials said.
The incident comes at a sensitive time in Lebanon, which is bracing for the expected release of a U.N. probe into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, father of Saad Hariri. The report is expected to implicate Hezbollah agents, which could put a strain on the current Lebanese coalition government, which includes members of the militant group.
Times staff writer Sanders reported from Jerusalem and special correspondent Sandels from Beirut.