Israeli soldiers fired tear gas to disperse dozens of protesters who threw stones at troops at the border with Lebanon on Friday, causing some Lebanese protesters and troops to suffer breathing problems.
Tensions on the outskirts of the Lebanese border village of Kfar Chouba began earlier this week as the Israeli military is digging in the area claimed by Lebanon.
On Wednesday, a Lebanese villager tried to stop an Israeli bulldozer from digging a ditch along the border. When the villager’s legs were covered in sand as the bulldozer drove on, UN peacekeepers stepped in and persuaded the driver to turn back. Videos of the elderly man with his legs stuck in the sand dune went viral on social media.
Israel ended an 18-year occupation of southern Lebanon when its troops withdrew from the area in May 2000.
Friday’s protest took place on the outskirts of the Kfar Chouba hills, which Beirut says is Israeli-occupied Lebanese land. The Kfar Chouba Hills and nearby Chebaa Farms are areas that Israel seized and claimed from Lebanon during the 1967 Middle East War.
On Friday, some protesters attempted to breach a fence in the rugged area overlooked by an Israeli military post. Israeli forces fired tear gas to disperse them, while Lebanese troops and UN peacekeepers later moved in and pushed back the protesters.
“Do not cross the blue line,” read a banner carried by a UN peacekeeper in Arabic, English and French, referring to the border drawn after Israel left in 2000. Israeli troops and several vehicles, including a heavily armored Merkava tank, were seen in the area.
Lebanese troops were on alert in the area and reinforcements were being called in.
In a statement, the Israeli military said protesters tried to damage a border barrier and threw stones at Israeli soldiers in the area. The military said the armed forces responded with “counterinsurgency means,” which typically means tear gas or stun grenades. The military said it would “not allow any attempt to violate Israeli sovereignty.”
Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL, said peacekeepers were on the ground and working to ease tensions in the region.
“We have urged the parties to use our coordination mechanisms effectively to prevent misunderstandings and violations and help maintain stability in the region,” Tenenti said. He added that the UNIFIL leadership is in contact with the parties and is looking for a solution.
“We urge both sides to exercise restraint and avoid actions along the blue line that could escalate tensions,” Tenenti told The Associated Press.
Later, protesters held Friday prayers in the area and then attempted to sneak in again, prompting more tear gas fires.
Tensions on Friday came a day after the head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Major General Aroldo Lazaro, chaired a meeting with senior Lebanese and Israeli officers at the UN headquarters on the border. The general called for restraint at the border and a reduction in tension.
The situation on the Lebanese-Israeli border has been relatively calm since the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. Nevertheless, tensions arose.
In April, Israel launched rare airstrikes on southern Lebanon after militants fired nearly three dozen rockets from Lebanon into Israel, injuring two people and causing property damage.
Associated Press writers Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel and Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.