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Less than a week on, the brief but fatal skirmish that occurred along the Israel-Lebanon border on August 3 seems that rarest phenomenon of all Middle East disputes: an open-and-shut case. All but the least discriminating of partisans and conspiracists now know who did what to whom and when and how. Most surprising is that the United Nations, in the form of its 12,000-strong peacekeeping Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), is to thank for swiftly settling the most contentious questions of whether or not Israel had trespassed onto Lebanese territory: it hadn't. However, there remains the broader matter of how to interpret Lebanon's unprovoked attack on an Israeli maintenance team and its military escort; was it premeditated or spontaneous? And if it was premeditated, does that hint at something darker on the horizon? 

Here's what we now know with some measure of certainty: On July 29, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) informed the UNIFIL Liaison Officer that it would be performing routine maintenance work at the edge of its own territory, just north of the Misgav Am kibbutz in the upper Galilee. Coordinating such clean-up operations with UNIFIL is a regular occurrence for both Israel and Lebanon as they are bound by the terms of UN Resolution 1701, which formally ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.  Israel said it had wanted to remove some shrubbery and a tree that were blocking the view of its security cameras. According to IDF Lt Col Avital Leibovich, who addressed a conference call with journalists and bloggers on Wednesday evening, this was exactly the kind of leafy coverage from which Hezbollah launched multiple kidnapping raids in 2006. The IDF further instructed UNIFIL that some of its own troops would be escorting an engineering crew for protection but that this escort, consisting of armored vehicles, tanks and flak-jacketed soldiers, would be positioned even further south of the ‘technical fence', the barrier that physically divides Israel and Lebanon but that does not always intersect with the so-called Blue Line designating the internationally recognised boundary between the two countries.  There would later be some confusion over an Associated Press photo that showed an IDF crane reaching over the fence; the caption suggested that Israel did in fact cross into Lebanese territory and violate Resolution 1701. But the crew's exact position, even north of the fence, was still about 200-300 meters south of the Blue Line, as has now been confirmed by UNIFIL.  (The fence/Blue Line "gap" problem could have been easily substantiated earlier in the news cycle: When I interviewed UNIFIL deputy spokesman Andrea Tenenti on August 4, he told me that the peacekeepers have begun demarcating the real border with blue barrels to prevent any unintentional crossings.)

Days before the actual maintenance work began, the Israeli officer in charge of it took the UNIFIL Liaison Officer to the exact location and pointed out which bits of foliage would be cleared. All plans were subsequently approved by UNIFIL, which duly informed the the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) of the scheduled activity, due to commence at 8.30 a.m. on Tuesday, August 3. In the event, the work was delayed for two hours that morning due to two UNIFIL requests. At 10.30 a.m., ten IDF engineers made their way toward the fence, while their military escort stayed behind, as promised, on higher terrain some 300 meters south.

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