(photo credit: Associated Press)
Israel’s border with Lebanon has returned to an uneasy calm following Tuesday’s violent incidents.
The IDF Engineering Corps has resumed its routine activities, including the trimming of bushes and shrubbery in the area of Israel’s security fence. Serious questions remain, however, regarding the background to the incident, and the possibility that it may have constituted a deliberate provocation by elements in Lebanon with an interest in heating up the border.
There is, of course, no conclusive proof as yet. But in considering the
various possibilities, a number of factors should be borne in mind.
First, it may confidently be concluded that the top level of command in
the Lebanese Armed Forces has no interest in provoking a clash with
Israel. The border is permanently tense. Small-scale incidents and
friction are part of the ongoing reality. But the LAF as a whole does
not have a motive for provocations carrying the risk of prolonged combat
with the IDF.
But the Lebanese Armed Forces are not a homogenous body. They reflect
the divided nature of the society of which they are a part. The majority
of the army’s rank and file is reckoned to consist of Lebanese Shi’a
Muslims. Shi’a Muslims are also well represented in the LAF officer
corps, and form a majority in certain units. The political views of
Shi’a LAF personnel are no different from those of the Lebanese Shi’a
population in general. That is, they are in the large majority
supporters of Hizbullah, or the Amal movement allied with it.
It is common knowledge that Hizbullah is able to rely on informants and
sympathizers within the LAF to ensure that the army does not disturb its
activities in the tense area south of the Litani River.
So there are elements within the LAF which support Hizbullah.
This raises the possibility that an officer sympathetic to Hizbullah’s
view of Israel and its modus operandi chose to act on his own
initiative, perhaps believing that the IDF had indeed crossed the
This scenario, which the government of Israel appears to favor, fails,
however, to address a number of known facts surrounding the incidents.
It is noteworthy that journalists from Hizbullah and allied
organizations were present at the scene. UNIFIL has confirmed that the
IDF informed it in advance of the planned tree-cutting operation. The
LAF would have been informed of this by UNIFIL, as a matter of routine. A
coherent explanation for the coincidental presence of six
Hizbullah-associated journalists at the scene has not yet been offered.
On the surface, it looks as though they were there because they had been
informed that something worth recording was about to take place. This
suggests prior planning.
Also, UNIFIL have confirmed that the LAF fired first, at an observation
tower situated hundreds of meters into the Israeli side of the border
fence. The observation tower was targeted by sniper fire. The speedy and
extreme nature of this response is quite out of character with the
usual handling of the regular incidents of misunderstanding and friction
that take place along the border.
These elements suggest that the events on Tuesday were the result of a
provocation. As to who might have been responsible – Lebanon at the
present time remains in a state of high political tension. There are
ongoing reports that the Special Tribunal investigating the murder of
former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri is on the verge of
Hizbullah, or elements within it, are now considered the most likely
suspects in Hariri’s killing. The movement is reported to have selected
some low-grade individuals who it may be prepared to throw to the
wolves. But the prospect remains that the tribunal may seek to indict
more senior movement figures.
Hizbullah is currently seeking to cloak its rejection of any such indictments in the national flag.
Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a press conference on Tuesday said
that his movement now possesses “irrefutable” proof that Israel was
responsible for the killing of Hariri. He promised to reveal the proof
in the near future. He also said that the forces of the “Resistance”
would fight alongside the LAF in the event of future clashes with
Hizbullah is the strongest force on the ground in Lebanon. Its
“legitimacy” in the eyes of the non-Shi’a element of the population
derives from its supposed role as a resistance force against Israeli
Nasrallah is banging the anti-Israeli drum on a daily basis at the
present time. On Wednesday, Hizbullah’s official Web site was carrying
the latest statement from the leader – a call for the death penalty to
be imposed on Lebanese convicted of spying for Israel. Tuesday’s
incident surely played into the “narrative” of a Lebanon united against
an encroaching Israeli threat.
Hizbullah thus possesses both the means and the motive to have ordered
the attack on Tuesday. Its responsibility remains the most likely
scenario. For its own reasons, it looks as though the government of
Israel prefers the theory of a lone, Shi’a officer who planned and
carried out the operation – including its media management aspects and
the unilateral decision to use extreme force. The acceptance of this
scenario presumably serves the government’s strategic and diplomatic
agenda. In terms of the available evidence, however, it is hard not to
conclude that the dimensions of the clash and its details suggest that
it was far more than simply a local initiative.