The Lebanese army was instructed to open fire at Israeli troops in the tree-pruning operation that triggered a deadly clash between Israeli and Lebanese troops, Israel News reported.
U.N. peacekeepers in front of a picture
of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah,
with an Arabic writing:
"we are full of surprises," (h/t Suzanne)
It said that during a late Wednesday meeting between UNIFIL and representatives of the Lebanese and Israeli armies, Lebanese army officer Abdul Rahman Shaitli said soldiers who opened fire on Israeli troops Tuesday were following instructions.
"Soldiers are instructed to open fire. This is the army's decision," he was quoted as saying.
Al Manar, Hezbollah's station, said the same thing.
To Western ears, this is ironic: the Lebanese Army (and, by extension, the government of Lebanon) is essentially admitting that, in full view of UNIFIL, they planned to break the terms of UN 1701 and start what could have easily devolved into a war. This is hardly how one would expect a responsible army or government to act.
Yet there is reason to be skeptical about this claim.
I first saw a Lebanese Army official saying this yesterday, in response to Israeli claims that a Hezbollah-aligned officer (or other rogue officer) decided to do the ambush on his own. The army therefore has at least four incentives to say that it came from the top: It wants to project an image of having full control over its soldiers; it wants to erase any indication that Hezbollah influences the army; it wants to take full credit for a decision that is wildly popular in Lebanon and it wants to contradict whatever Israel says.
On the other side, as Ronen Bergman noted in a WSJ article reproduced here, the timing seems more than coincidental - the event happened hours before a scheduled major speech by Nasrallah on the fourth anniversary of the end of the 2006 Lebanon war. And the LAF - and Hezbollah - knew about this dastardly tree-pruning operation for days, if not weeks. Bergman quotes Israeli intelligence as saying that a LAF brigade commander gave the order to shoot, and the LAF is now providing cover.
Israel should call their bluff. If what Lebanese officials are now claiming is true, then they planned an act of war and Israel should call for an international investigation of the incident. Such an investigation cannot have a bad outcome for Israel: either it would show serious problems in LAF command structure, including Hezbollah influence, or it will show that Lebanon is indeed acting recklessly in violation of 1701.
(Unless, of course, it is staffed with Goldstone-type people who will end up looking for and finding only evidence Israel started shooting first!)
UPDATE: The Sydney Morning Herald says it has evidence that indeed the orders came form the top:
A senior diplomatic source, who spoke to the on condition of anonymity, said preliminary investigations by UN personnel monitoring the border also indicated the Lebanese army planned the attack.
The source said the UN Interim Force in Lebanon advised Lebanese army commanders early on Tuesday morning that the Israelis would be removing a tree on their side of the border early in the afternoon.
Several hours before the Israelis moved in to begin that work, a senior Lebanese army unit arrived at the Lebanese village of al-Adeisa, which overlooks the site where the tree was to be removed, and took control of the area.
They were accompanied by several journalists linked to media outlets controlled by the radical Shiite movement Hezbollah, which controls southern Lebanon, the source said.
Shortly after 12.15pm, when the Israelis moved a crane close to the border fence to begin removing the tree, a Lebanese army sniper took aim at the commanders who were supervising the operation from a hill on the Israeli side of the border.
"The sniper was aiming for the most senior IDF officers present, not the person operating the crane where the alleged border infringement took place," the source told the .
"These were not warning shots fired towards the area of the crane. Someone took careful aim at the Israeli commanders who were standing several hundred metres away."
One shot hit Colonel Dov Harari in the head, killing him instantly. Another shot caused shrapnel wounds to the chest of a captain, who is in hospital in a serious condition.
The source said questions were being asked about why a senior Lebanese army unit had arrived in the area in the hours before the attack, and why they were accompanied by journalists close to Hezbollah.(h/t Daled Amos via email)