Update from CiF Watch contributor, on the scene at Misgav Am (Northern Israel)

Unlike Harriet Sherwood in Jerusalem or Brian Whitaker in London I today abandoned the comfort of my air-conditioner (Israel is currently experiencing a rather vicious heat wave) and travelled to Misgav Am to see the site of yesterday’s fatal cross-border attack for myself and to hear a briefing from the IDF spokesperson and officers who were on the scene.

An officer from the Northern Command gave some interesting background information to the incident. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) rotates its battalions annually and now has more forces in Southern Lebanon than it did in previous years. The battalions are ethnically mixed and comprise Shi’ite, Sunni and Christian soldiers as well as other minorities. Some of the Shi’ite soldiers may well have family members operating in Hizbollah and whereas it was true to say in years gone by that the LAF’s officers were almost exclusively Christian, this is no longer the case and today Shi’ite commanders are also commonplace. Whilst the LAF commanders can be said to behave in a professional manner, such is not always the case with individual soldiers. The LAF is run entirely from Beirut and what happens on the ground in Southern Lebanon is a direct reflection of policy at the head of the command structure. The brigade responsible for yesterday’s incident was the 11th Brigade of the LAF.

Since the last battalion changeover in the Eastern and Central sections which adjoin the Israeli border three months ago there has been a marked rise in the level of aggressive behavior towards the IDF on the part of the Lebanese soldiers, ranging from verbal threats and offensive hand signs to provocative acts involving RPGs and machine guns. The IDF has repeatedly advised the LAF against such behavior by way of UNIFIL as it was obvious that these LAF soldiers were ‘playing with fire’. Unfortunately, the LAF did not see fit to put an end to these provocations and the message obviously filtered down to the troops on the ground that such actions are acceptable. Whilst it is possible that yesterday’s events were the work of a renegade soldier who started a fire but could not control the flames, the incident did not appear out of the blue and it was most likely pre-planned. The blind eye turned by Beirut despite the warnings from the IDF by way of UNIFIL created a situation in which the Lebanese soldiers have been engaged in provocations for a long time with no reprisals against them and no censure from their commanders, bringing about a situation in which they were ‘psyched up’ for provocation.

When asked about the role of UNIFIL in the incident, and in particular with relation to the pictures of UNIFIL troops standing calmly beside LAF soldiers aiming RPGs at Israel, the officer somewhat laconically replied that “UNIFIL could have played a better role yesterday”. Tonight (August 4th) a meeting will be held in Nakura between top-level officers from the IDF, UNIFIL and the LAF regarding UNIFIL’s performance in yesterday’s incident.

Colonel Ilan, the deputy commander of the IDF battalion involved in yesterday’s incident then went on to explain what happened. As we know, the IDF was engaged in clearing vegetation from the Israeli fence which is situated to the south of the international border and lies within Israeli territory. He described this as an integral part of the defence of the civilian communities in the area, the country as a whole, and the farmers whose fields extend right up to the fence itself. Not only does overgrown vegetation provide cover for infiltrators, it also compromises the working of the fence itself which has electronic monitoring devices built-in. In this area the distance between the Israeli fence and the international border is two to three hundred meters (known as an ‘enclave’) and there is therefore no reason for anyone to mistakenly think that Israelis were in Lebanese territory and at no point did IDF soldiers cross the fence.

In this picture taken today one can clearly see the Israeli fence which runs along the white road just above the orchards. The asphalt road above is on the edge of Lebanese territory and white UN armoured vehicles can be seen at its edge. The area between the two roads is the Israeli territory known as an ‘enclave’.

Yesterday’s pruning activities were coordinated in advance both with UNIFIL and directly with officers from the LAF and were scheduled to commence at 8 a.m. UNIFIL requested a delay in the start of operations and with the agreement of both sides the operations were postponed until 11 a.m. Before the commencement of the pruning activities, Colonel Ilan himself patrolled the Israeli side of the fence with his UNIFIL counterpart walking along the other side of the fence and indicated to the UNIFIL officer each and every tree which was to be pruned. The UNIFIL officer gave his consent to every single tree which Colonel Ilan pointed to and at 11:30 a.m. the IDF soldiers went to the area to begin work.

Despite the prior co-ordination, UNIFIL suddenly requested yet another delay for reasons unknown. The IDF froze its activities for a certain amount of time and then resumed them, first extending the arm of the truck whist it was still empty of personnel in order to test the reaction on the other side.

At that moment sniper fire commenced. The sniper fire was very exact and hit the IDF commanders who were standing at a considerable distance from the area of the pruning activities. Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari was hit by a bullet to the head from a distance of some 400 to 500 meters, indicating the premeditated nature of the attack. The IDF soldiers at the site of the incident responded by firing at the sniper only, taking care to avoid harming UNIFIL forces or civilians in the area.

Colonel Ilan expressed his regret at what he termed “the cynical manipulation of our wish to co-ordinate”, making it clear that he believes that the sniper took advantage of the IDF’s co-ordination efforts to prepare his attack. He stressed, however, that Israel will not abandon its right to act within its own territory in order to defend its citizens and soldiers.

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