BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon criticized on Wednesday moves by U.S. lawmakers to block aid for the military over concerns it was working closely with militant Shi’ite Hezbollah, after a deadly cross-border clash between Lebanon and Israel.
Defense Minister Elias al-Murr told reporters any party that wished to help the military had to do so without conditions.
“That person who said in Congress, ‘I will stop aid to the army’, he is free to do so ... Anyone who wants to help the army without restrictions or conditions, is welcome,” Murr said.
“This person wants to make military aid conditional on not protecting (Lebanon’s) land, people and borders against Israeli aggression. Let them keep their money or give it to Israel. We will confront (Israel) with the capabilities we own.”
Israel complained to the United States and France about funds to the Lebanese army after a skirmish killed a senior Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist in the worst border violence since a 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.
Lebanese President Michel Suleiman launched an initiative to build up the underequipped army, prompting Iran, which supports Lebanon’s militant Shi’ite group Hezbollah, to offer support.
The U.S. State Department said the statement by Iran, which is likely to alarm Western countries who fear Tehran is increasing its influence near Israel’s northern border, demonstrated the need for continued U.S. support to Lebanon.
The United States has provided more than $720 million in assistance to the army since 2006 to Lebanon.
In Congress, a senior House Republican, Eric Cantor, said the lines between Hezbollah, the Lebanese military and the government had become “blurred.” Two U.S. Democrat lawmakers have said they were holding up $100 million approved package.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said it was a mistake to arm Lebanon’s military with advanced weapons because they were being used by the army against Israel. Washington said it was not aware that any U.S. equipment was used in the clash.
A senior U.S. official said the administration was confident the freeze on assistance would be temporary.
Israel said a Lebanese army sniper opened fire last week on two Israeli officers as they watched a tree-pruning operation on the Israeli side of a security fence below the U.N. “Blue Line.”
The Lebanese army said it first fired warning shots, then Israelis fired at their soldiers. Israeli artillery and tank fire followed.
Hezbollah did not take part in the clash, but has warned it would intervene if Israel attacked the army again.
Israeli analysts have speculated a renegade army unit sympathetic to Hezbollah had launched the attack. Murr said the army fired at Israel based on “an order from the army chief.”
Writing by Yara Bayoumy; editing by Myra MacDonald