All indications are that the gunman who shot and killed an IDF soldier on the Lebanon border Sunday night, without any provocation or cause, was a Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) member who acted alone.
Urgent questions remain unanswered: Why did the LAF soldier pull the trigger? If he was indeed a rogue attacker, how will the LAF deal with him? And why did the IDF allow St.-Sgt. Maj. Shlomi Cohen, 31, to travel alone near the border in an unarmored vehicle at night? As the IDF investigates, the incident will serve as a reminder that the Lebanese border, usually calm and stable since the ceasefire that ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, can still produce sudden outbursts of deadly violence at any time.
In today’s increasingly volatile region, such incidents have the potential to spark a wider escalation, one that could see Hezbollah and the IDF begin to trade blows. In fact, senior IDF commanders are seeing large-scale preparations by Hezbollah for its next clash with Israel.
The IDF too is readying itself.
Counteracting the explosive risks are stabilizing factors.
First among them is Israeli deterrence, which remains in place, based on the enemy’s understanding of the devastating firepower the IDF can employ. To bolster this deterrence, IDF units on the northern border have been given enough flexibility to respond immediately and forcefully to attacks against them.
Additionally, the IDF’s methodical decision-making process, based on a careful assessment of the situation, helps prevent knee-jerk reactions.
That Hezbollah remains neckdeep in sectarian Shi’ite-Sunni fighting in Syria and faces growing numbers of attacks on its home court of Lebanon suggest it stands little to gain from opening up a second front against Israel. Therefore, its involvement in Sunday’s incident appears unlikely.
For these reasons, the IDF chose to respond with restraint. (The shots fired by IDF soldiers soon after the initial shooting were in response to suspicious border activity and did not constitute retaliation.) The restraint is a reflection of the fact that it is not in either side’s interest to escalate. This is especially true for the LAF, which, militarily speaking, is weak and would stand to lose a great deal in any clash with Israel.
Another stabilizing factor lies in the regular meetings by IDF officials with the LAF, as well as with representatives of the UN Interim Force In Lebanon (UNIFIL) to discuss border security. The talks are aimed at trying to prevent unnecessary developments.
The security dialogue will now enable the IDF to demand firm answers from the Lebanese military and, no less importantly, to deliver a clear warning that any repeat will jeopardize the border’s stability in the future.