WASHINGTON – The US Congress is blocking funding to the Lebanese military following its attack on Israeli soldiers last week amidst concerns it is cooperating with Hizbullah.

"This incident was tragic and entirely avoidable. US assistance is intended to enhance our safety and that of our allies,” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) said Monday.

Lowey chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that handles foreign aid and needs to authorize such funds. The $100 million in Lebanese military assistance approved for 2010 has yet to be disbursed, giving Lowey a window to put a hold on the funding for the immediate future.

Lowey is looking to find out more about the nature of what she termed an “outrageous incident” as well as watching how Lebanon responds in the wake of the violence.

“These holds are typically dependent on the actions and rhetoric coming out of the relevant nations,” a Democratic aide noted.

Similarly, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Howard Berman also applied a hold, citing more general concerns about “reported Hizbullah influence on the Lebanese Armed Forces.”

Berman entered his hold the day before the deadly incident, which he said only confirmed his reservations. His office also wants more information on Hizbullah’s role in the LAF, how diligently US weapons are kept track of and how well the LAF cooperates with UNIFIL.

“Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hizbullah influence on the LAF -- and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor -- I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon,” Berman said. 

Last Tuesday, Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers shot at Israeli officers who were clearing brush along the northern border, killing one and seriously wounding another. The IDF returned fire, killing two soldiers and a journalist.

A State Department official said that the US is still trying to ascertain the facts regarding the incident, including whether there’s any truth behind reports that the LAF troops used American-issued guns.

“We consistently review all of our security assistance programs to all receiving countries,” the official said. “Ultimately, we continue to believe that our support to the LAF and ISF [Internal Security Forces] will contribute toward improving regional security.”                          

He added that the funding “is part of an international effort to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state. We have provided support to Lebanon to strengthen the ability of the Lebanese government to exercise its own sovereignty.”

LAF funding approved for 2009 and already in the pipeline is still being distributed by the US as scheduled as of now.

Another $100 million had already been requested by the Obama administration for 2011 and considered by Lowey’s subcommittee for 2011 before the incident occurred. That money could also be affected when that spending bill is considered by the rest of the committee and House when Congress reconvenes from its summer recess in September.

Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor, House minority whip, called Monday for 2011 funding to be blocked until the incident had been investigated and it was clear that the Lebanese military wasn’t collaborating with Hizbullah.

“The LAF’s unprovoked attack on the Israeli defense forces in undisputed Israeli territory demands a sweeping reassessment of how we distribute our foreign aid," Cantor declared in a statement issued Monday.

“The purpose of the assistance was to build up a Lebanese fighting force that would serve as a check on the growing power of the radical Islamist Hezbollah movement,” he noted, referring to hundreds of millions of dollars the US has already spent training and equipping the LAF in recent years.

"For the past few years, the US and the international community looked the other way as the lines between Hezbollah and the Lebanese military and government became blurred,” he charged. “But the days of ignoring the LAF’s provocations against Israel and protection of Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon are over.”

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