Posted by on August 05, 2010 in Blog

The situation on the Israel-Lebanon border has entered a dangerous phase which requires immediate US and international attention to diffuse tensions and restrain the prospects for escalation.  Last month, Daniel Kurtzer of the Council on Foreign Relations warned of the possibility of another major war between Israel and Lebanon. One of the possible scenarios he laid out for such a war was an Israeli-instigated incident on the border to justify unleashing a major military campaign against Hezbollah, as the latter, by acquiring a stockpile of advanced weaponry, "has probably already breached the limits of what Israel considers acceptable behavior."

Earlier this week, only a day before the border incident, the International Crisis Group released an important and alarming report warning about the great danger of a potential outbreak in new hostilities across the Israel-Lebanon border. It noted that both sides are exercising restraint because of wide mutual recognition that "the next confrontation would be far more devastating and broader in scope." The report highlights both Israel's and Hezbollah's violations of their obligations and warns of the possibility of miscommunication or miscalculation leading to devastating consequences. This week's deadly border clash, and the exchange of threats that followed, further highlights the urgency of direct US engagement towards a comprehensive regional peace agreement.

This Week's Border Clash:

A lethal border incident 2 days ago left 3 Lebanese soldiers, a high-ranking Israeli officer, and a Lebanese journalist dead, and several others on both sides wounded. Both sides exchanged accusations as to who was responsible for the incident, as well as threats about the consequences of continued provocations.

What triggered the Incident?

Lebanon claimed that it was an Israeli incursion across its border to cut down a tree to facilitate the monitoring of Lebanese territories through surveillance equipment that triggered the incident. While the Israeli army did admit that it was on the border conducting "overt and covert operations, which include mainly infrastructure work aimed at minimizing the weak spots Hezbollah can utilize," it claimed that it remained within Israel's boundaries during such operations.

Did Israeli Forces Cross the Border?

An image showing Israeli soldiers reaching over the border-fence to cut down the tree initially seems like a pretty strong indictment, until one realizes that the security fence doesn't mark the official border between Israel and Lebanon. As veteran Middle East journalist Robert Fisk put it, the problem is that "no one is exactly sure where the Lebanese-Israeli border is." But while there is no mutually agreed-on line defining the official border (the tree area in question is in dispute), the mission of the UN peace keeping force (UNIFIL) is to enforce observance of the "blue line," the official line marking Israel's withdrawal in 2000. Despite their reservations, both Israel and Lebanon agreed to observe the blue line as defined by the UN. UNIFIL's "preliminary" investigation into this week's incident indicated that while the IDF was operating north of the fence, it was still south of the blue line, which means within Israel's boundaries as defined by recent UN resolutions.

Lead-up to the Clash:

On the morning of the incident, some reports indicated that when head of the UN peace keeping operations Alain Le Roy conveyed to the Lebanese the IDF's intention to carry out its landscaping mission, Lebanon objected to the operation, citing reservations about the route of the blue line in the area in question (Lebanon claims that area). As a result, Le Roy asked the Israeli side to delay the tree-cutting operation until the dispute is resolved, but Israel did not wait to that point. Undisputed by both parties, when the IDF proceeded with its operation, Lebanese soldiers fired warning shots in the air to get the Israeli soldiers to retreat. Lebanon later said that it considered Israel's decision to disregard Lebanon's reservations and unilaterally move ahead with the operation without the presence of UNIFIL troops to be a provocation. As to who fired directly at the other first, that remains in dispute.

Broader Context:

Rather than being an aberration, this incident followed not only months, but years of tensions on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border since the end of the 2006 Israel war with Hezbollah. During that time, there were countless UNIFIL-documented Israeli violations of Lebanese airspace and UN suspicions of the planting of Israeli espionage devices in Lebanese territories, as well as Israeli allegations of Lebanese soldiers behaving "provocatively" and taunting Israeli soldiers across the border.

Years of tensions and a serious explosive incident remind us once again of the attention needed for US-Lebanese bilateral relations and the pressing need for achieving comprehensive regional peace to avert potentially catastrophic consequences for US interests and for the people of the region.


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