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Israel threatens to retaliate against attacks on three fronts

JERUSALEM — Violence this week on Israel's northern and southern borders has escalated tensions and raised the prospect of further clashes this summer, Israeli military experts said Wednesday.

A clash between Israeli and Lebanese soldiers Tuesday was the most serious outbreak of violence in the north since the two countries fought a war in the summer of 2006.

In the south, rockets from Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, where Islamist militants have operated in the past, struck Israel's and Jordan's Red Sea ports, killing a Jordanian civilian and wounding three others.

Militants in Gaza also fired rockets at Israel and Jordan Monday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would retaliate against all the attacks.

"Over recent days we've witnessed three attacks against Israel. An attack from Gaza on Ashkelon, an attack by the Lebanese army on Israel Defense Forces troops carrying out a routine operation, and another attack from the Sinai at Eilat," Netanyahu said Wednesday. "I want to make very clear to Hamas and to the Lebanese government that we view them as responsible for the violent provocation against us. Don't test our determination to protect our citizens."

The IDF was on high alert Wednesday, military officials said. Additional Israeli military units moved into the north as IDF soldiers moved to complete a tree pruning operation that led to violence Tuesday.

One Israeli reserve officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist were killed in what was supposed to be a routine operation to clear a cypress tree whose branches were tripping the electronic anti-infiltration devices on a border fence.

Lebanese Information Minister Tareq Mitri said Israel had crossed into Lebanese territory during the operation, and that the Lebanese military opened fire in response.

However, UNIFIL, the United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, supported Israel's version of events, and said the Israelis had been in their own territory when Lebanese soldiers opened fire.

"UNIFIL established . . . that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side," said UNIFIL military spokesman Lt. Col. Naresh Bhatt, referring to the border line drawn by the United Nations after Israeli troops withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000. Israel and Lebanon both dispute parts of the Blue Line.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that UNIFIL's findings supported Israel's view that the "Lebanese attack on our forces was both unprovoked and unjustified."

A Lebanese army official said that while its military had prior notice of Israel's pruning operation, the activity was supposed to take place under UNIFIL supervision. A spokesman for the UN agency said that issue was under investigation.

A tense calm returned to the northern border following the incident, though residents there said that they wouldn't be surprised if there were additional flare-ups in coming months. More than 1,200 people were killed in Lebanon and 158 in Israel during the 2006 war.

Military experts fear that a new war in southern Lebanon would be more devastating than the last, due to a number of long-range Scud missiles that Hezbollah is believed to have acquired from Syria.

Israeli officials said that they also were concerned that they could be fighting a war on two fronts as violence along their southern border was attributed to Gaza-based Palestinian militants.

Netanyahu has received reports that if Israel goes to war in the north, militants in Gaza are likely to strike at Israeli targets while the IDF was distracted elsewhere, according to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

Egypt's official news agency said Gaza militants were behind the rockets that hit Israel and Jordan on Monday, in an anonymous quote attributed to security officials. Egyptian officials did not say where the rockets were launched from, but promised to conduct a full investigation into the incident.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed the charges, calling them "silly."

"This sounds silly and does not depend on any actual reasonable evidence," said Abu Zuhri. "Egyptian statements are conflicting."

(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent)

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