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Clashes Between Israeli, Lebanese Forces Spark Fears of Wider War

Clashes along the border between the Israeli military and the Lebanese Army have many Lebanese worried about a wider war between the two countries. The fighting has produced casualties on both sides. Many Lebanese leaders are accusing Israel of planning to attack its smaller neighbor.

The sound of explosions and shelling along the border between Israel and Lebanon on an otherwise lazy summer day - when many Lebanese were at the beach - sent alarm bells ringing over the possibility of a wider conflict.

Possibility of new war

Most Lebanese remember the sudden, unexpected conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas that broke out on a similar summer day four years ago.

The Beirut media has also been warning in recent weeks about the possibility of a new war between Lebanon and Israel.

The apparently trivial cause of Tuesday's hostilities - the presence of a tree in the no-man's-land between Israel's security fence and the United Nations patrolled Lebanese border - demonstrated the degree of tensions that have built in recent weeks.

Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, says that the Israelis got a big surprise when Lebanese Army troops fired on them in the border zone.

"The Israelis were stunned by the reaction of the Lebanese Army," he said. "Because they used to enter this pocket between the blue line and the border with Lebanon with impunity after clearing the matter with [U.N. peacekeepers], and the Lebanese Army never opened fire on the Israelis before. This is the first time that the Lebanese Army and the Israelis clash head-on since 1972."

The Lebanese Army deployed along the border for the first time in years after the bloody 2006 conflict between Israel and Hezbollah guerillas and at the insistence of both Israel and the international community. Lebanese Army troops did not participate in that 2006 conflict.

Many Lebanese television stations added to the frenzy of Tuesday's clashes by interrupting their regular programming and showing flames and smoke from a brush fire that had been sparked by shelling along the border.

Call for UN intervention

Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on the United Nations to intervene to stop the fighting, while lesser political figures ratcheted up tensions by accusing Israel of violating their country's sovereignty.

Hilal Khashan thinks that recent Israeli accusations against Hezbollah concerning the alleged stockpiling of rockets and other weapons has created a feverish climate along the border.

"Most observers have been talking about some development along the border between Israel and Lebanon for the past month, and Israel has been sending signals. The Israelis for some time have been telling the world that Hezbollah is violating the terms of [U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701] and stockpiling ammunition in southern Lebanon. Two weeks ago, they even released images and footage of Hezbollah positions right across the border," he said.

Timor Goksel, the former spokesman for U.N. peacekeeping forces (UNIFIL) in southern Lebanon, argues that a timely U.N. intervention will probably prevent an escalation of hostilities:

"So far, this is between the Lebanese Army and the Israeli Army, and as long as it remains between two armies, I'm sure it won't escalate. I'm sure that UNIFIL there is in touch with both sides and they'll find a way to calm it down," he said.

Goksel thinks that barring any outside intervention from regional political forces, Tuesday's clashes will be contained. Khashan agrees, but warns that a wider conflict could ultimately be looming on the more distant horizon.