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Analysis: Deadly clash highlights border tensions

By Paula Hancocks, CNN
A relative mourns the Israeli officer killed Tuesday.
A relative mourns the Israeli officer killed Tuesday.
  • Israel-Lebanon border clash happened over tree trimming misunderstanding
  • An Israeli officer and several Lebanese soldiers died in exchange of fire
  • Experts on both sides agree situation could have deteriorated had Hezbollah become involved
  • For now the assumption appears to be the clash was an isolated incident

Jerusalem (CNN) -- It was a timely reminder that four years of relative calm on the Israeli-Lebanese border cannot be taken for granted.

The Israeli military was focusing on Monday's rocket attacks on its Red Sea resort of Eilat and the neighboring Jordanian city of Aqaba and on increasing tit-for-tat attacks on its border with Gaza.

But it was its border with Lebanon that was to prove the most deadly. An Israeli officer and several Lebanese soldiers were killed in the exchange of fire Tuesday across the volatile boundary.

What would be considered gardening elsewhere in the world led to deaths and accusations from both Israel and Lebanon that the other violated U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701, the resolution which was intended to resolve the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.

The U.N. peacekeepers in Southern Lebanon, UNIFIL, have since agreed with Israel that its engineers trimming a tree to ensure line of sight across the border were on the Israeli side of the Blue Line.

Looking at the bigger picture though, is this the "grave escalation" Israel calls it, or is it a one-off reminder that tensions can and will flare up on this tense border.

Video: U.N.: Israel was on its side
Video: Lebanese and Israeli troops trade fire
  • Israel
  • War and Conflict
  • Lebanon

Experts and politicians alike highlight the fact these clashes were between the Israeli army and the Lebanese army only and not between Israel and its 2006 enemy Hezbollah.

Paul Salem, director of Carnegie Middle East in Beirut, told CNN: "Hezbollah do not want a war, and they realized that if they got directly involved that would escalate things dramatically."

Israeli experts agree if Hezbollah had got directly involved, the Israeli response would have been far more aggressive and the U.N. and U.S. calls for calm would have been easier to ignore.

Memories of the bloody 2006 war are fresh on both sides.

"I am concerned if the Lebanese don't keep their commitment and the ceasefire -- (and) I think it is in their interest as it is in ours -- that this border will stay quiet," Dan Meridor, Israeli deputy prime minister said. "The price paid four years ago in the second Lebanon war was heavy and we do not need to repeat this again."

Officials on both sides agree the border has become more tense over the past few months.

Salem said one of the reasons was the upcoming release of the report from the U.N. tribunal into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and rumors it will implicate Hezbollah operatives.

He said: "Israel too is in a very uncompromising mood and acting tough against Hezbollah, against the Lebanese army, against the Lebanese government. So with a lot of high tension, a lot of tough talk, occasionally it's going to blow up like this."

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said in a statement Tuesday: "Any Israeli attempt of aggression needs to be confronted whatever the sacrifices are."

That's a reference beyond this one deadly incident and a reference to allegations from Lebanese officials that Israel often violates Resolution 1701 with Israeli aircraft entering Lebanese airspace.

But the assumption is that Tuesday's clashes, while deadly, were isolated. And while UNIFIL "urging maximum restraint" may not ensure peace, painful awareness of what the alternative is, may.