PM issues warnings to Lebanon, Hamas

US says Lebanese fire was "wholly unjustified and unwarranted."

Bibi worried 311 (photo credit: AP)
Bibi worried 311
(photo credit: AP)
Israel will hit hard against anyone who tries to harm its citizens, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday as he issued a stern warning to both Hamas and the Lebanese government in the aftermath of four attacks against Israel in the past five days from Gaza, Sinai and Lebanon.
“We will reach, and hit with great force, anyone who shoots at Israeli citizens, no matter from where,” Netanyahu said in a Hebrew statement released to the media.
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In a new move for the Prime Minister’s Office, Netanyahu also released the statement in video form. In it, he held Hamas accountable for Friday’s rocket attack from Gaza on Ashkelon, and for Saturday’s attack against the Sha’ar Hanegev region. He also blamed Hamas for Monday’s rocket fire from Sinai against Eilat and Aqaba. One Jordanian was killed.
These attacks were followed by an incident along the northern border on Tuesday in which Lebanese soldiers killed an IDF reserve battalion commander and wounded another officer.
In the exchange of fire, three Lebanese soldiers and one journalist were killed.
“I want it to be clear to Hamas, as well as to the Lebanese government, which we hold responsible for the violent provocations against our soldiers: Do not test our determination to protect Israeli citizens and soldiers. Our policy is clear. Israel responds and will continue to respond forcibly to every attack against its citizens and soldiers,” the prime minister said.
“It appears that there are those who understand this and have tried to evade responsibility for their crimes,” he added.
Separately, he issued an English statement, both in print and on video, in which he called on the international community to condemn the Lebanese attack in light of Wednesday’s statement by UNIFIL peacekeepers that the trees the IDF was removing along the security fence was located in Israel.
Lebanon claimed it had shot at Israeli soldiers after they crossed the international border.
“Following the exchange of fire between the Lebanese army and the Israeli army across the Blue Line in El- Adeisse yesterday, the UNIFIL investigators were on the ground and commenced investigations,” the UNIFIL statement said. “The investigations are still ongoing and the findings will be intimated on conclusion of the investigations.
UNIFIL established, however, that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side.”
Netanyahu said that now was the time for the world to speak out against such aggression.
“For years, many in the international community have remained silent when rockets have been fired at Israeli civilians, and when unprovoked attacks have been launched against our soldiers,” he said. “Expressions of outrage have largely been reserved for Israel’s response to those attacks. Firing missiles on civilians is a war crime, and unprovoked attacks on soldiers are blatant acts of aggression.
“Israel expects the international community to condemn such attacks in the strongest possible terms,” the prime minister said. “All those in the international community committed to peace should support Israel’s right to defend itself against those who attack the innocent and seek to destroy peace.”
Netanyahu’s office said that as of Thursday, all his statements would be made available in both languages.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley labeled the Lebanese fire on IDF soldiers “wholly unjustified and unwarranted,” speaking at a briefing with reporters on Wednesday.
“The United Nations has now established that the trees cut by the Israeli Defense Forces were on the Israeli side of the line that separates Israel and Lebanon,” Crowley said. “The firing by the Lebanese Armed Forces was wholly unjustified and unwarranted.”
Crowley stressed that the US would “continue to seek a full report about this incident,” with the priority being that such incidents don’t recur. He also repeated his comments from the day before, calling for maximum restraint.
“We regret the loss of life on both sides,” he said.
Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon also told The Jerusalem Post that Israel expects the international community to come out loudly in condemnation of Lebanon, especially in light of UNIFIL’s statement.
Diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said they were slightly frustrated at the “even-handed” statement put out by European countries, which did not squarely condemn Lebanon.
On Wednesday evening, UNIFIL held a special meeting with IDF and Lebanese army officials at the Nakoura crossing, toping off a day of furious diplomatic activity aimed at reducing tensions.
According to a statement from UNIFIL, its commander Maj.-Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas called the extraordinary tripartite meeting to address the serious situation that had developed, with the aim of preventing any recurrence.
In advance of the meeting, UNIFIL said it “expects the parties will address the issues in a constructive way and renew their commitment, as a matter of priority, to the cessation of hostilities, as well as fully utilize the liaison and coordination mechanism with UNIFIL with a view to ensuring that incidents of violence are avoided in the future.”
The statement said UNIFIL had been in constant contact with the parties throughout Wednesday, “urging them to exercise maximum restraint and cease firing, as well as to fully respect the Blue Line in line with their declared commitment to the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.”
In spite of UNIFIL’s supportive statement toward Israel on Wednesday, Israeli defense officials and diplomats were critical of its moves in advance of the shooting.
A vote on extending UNIFIL’s mandate is slated for late August and will likely pass without any problem. While Foreign Ministry officials said that Israel was not seeking changes to UNIFIL’s mandate, defense officials said they would use Tuesday’s border skirmish as well as intelligence on Hizbullah’s military buildup in southern Lebanese villages to argue that UNIFIL needed to be more aggressive.
The criticism of UNIFIL stemmed from pictures on Tuesday that showed peacekeepers standing alongside Lebanese soldiers, who, instead of working to stop the fire, appeared to call on Israel to stop clearing the brush, even though Israel had informed the UNIFIL men of the impending operation six hours earlier.
Diplomatic officials blamed this part of the incident on UNIFIL’s Indonesian contingent and said they were concerned.
One diplomatic source was worried about “Indonesia sympathies with the other side.”
On Wednesday, the IDF completing clearing the brush.
MK Shaul Mofaz (Labor), a former defense minister, was extremely critical of UNIFIL on Wednesday and said it had been incompetent in its failure to stop the Lebanese fire.
Other defense officials said the peacekeeping force’s conduct was proof of the need for a more robust mandate that would enable it to be more aggressive and use force to stop Hizbullah violations in southern Lebanon.
Israel is particularly disturbed by UNIFIL’s refusal to enter villages independently and without coordinating first with Lebanese forces, which the IDF has said frequently cooperate with Hizbullah.
Despite UNIFIL’s statement that the brush had been on the Israeli side of the border, Lebanon said it still considered the tree-trimming a provocation, saying its soldiers fired warning shots after the Israelis ignored requests from UNIFIL to stop their work, and that Israel retaliated.
Information Minister Tarek Mitri said Lebanon respects the border but still contests part of it, insisting that the fateful cypress tree, while on the Israeli side of the border, “is Lebanese territory.”
UNIFIL had told Lebanon the IDF was planning to fell the tree, but Lebanon appealed.
The country admitted its soldiers had been the first to fire when the incident broke out, but said they had been warning shots.
Israel’s security cabinet, meanwhile, was briefed on the events at its weekly meeting on Wednesday. A number of assessments were discussed, ranging from the possibility that this had been a “localized incident” that could be contained, to a more worrisome assessment that Hizbullah supporters had infiltrated the Lebanese army and were doing the Shi’ite organization’s bidding.
There is also the possibility that the incident was timed to detract attention from the expected indictment in the near future of Hizbullah members in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
The security cabinet was told of the manner in which the IDF informed UNIFIL well in advance of its brush-clearing work on Tuesday, and also of the fact that the IDF had warned UNIFIL that recent instances of Lebanese soldiers pointing their weapons at IDF soldiers, and cursing them, would likely spiral out of control.
Throughout Wednesday, Israeli officials were in contact with their counterparts in the US, France and Egypt in an attempt to ease the tensions with Lebanon.
Israeli officials were hopeful on Wednesday night that the incident was already behind them.
Hilary Leila Kreiger contributed to this report.