Lebanese brushfire

Following recent tensions on Israel's northern border, one questions the wisdom of further Western military assistance to Lebanon.

lebaneese sniper311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
lebaneese sniper311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
For one tense day in early August, the region held its breath as an exchange of gunfire on the Israel- Lebanon border left five people dead and stoked fears of another war. But the instigator this time was not the Shi’ite terror militia Hizbullah, whose deadly cross-border raid in summer 2006 sparked a month-long rocket war.
Rather, the recent hostilities were started by members of the Lebanese Armed Forces, bringing into question the wisdom of further Western military assistance to that country.
Tensions eventually subsided after the head of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon hosted a rare three-way meeting with Israeli and Lebanese military officers. But it was clear that Shi’ite elements within the Lebanese army had prepared the deadly ambush and yet went undisciplined by their superiors.
UNIFIL quickly confirmed Israel’s version of the incident, which occurred when IDF forces were dispatched to stand guard over employees of a tree-cutting firm who were thinning out brush along the border that could be used as cover.
The IDF had notified UNIFIL of the routine pruning two days earlier, but the UN force asked for a delay so it could inform local Lebanese army commanders. It turned out that the tipoff was used by Lebanese soldiers loyal to Hizbullah to prepare an ambush, and several cameramen were even invited to record the attack. An Israeli officer was killed and a second seriously wounded in the initial ambush, while three LAF troops and a journalist for Hizbullah’s al- Manar TV were killed by the IDF response.
Officials in Beirut insisted that the IDF had crossed into Lebanon, but a UNIFIL probe established that the trees being cut were more than a 100 meters south of the ‘Blue Line’ border set by the UN.
UNIFIL’s unusually prompt investigation was aimed at averting another escalation. Reports indicate Israel and Hizbullah almost came to blows in May, when intelligence reports revealed that Syria was transferring advanced Scud-D missiles to the Shi’ite militia. In more recent weeks, UNIFIL troops had come under assault from local Shi’ite villagers for venturing into areas where Hizbullah is believed to be building up its forces.
In sorting out why LAF troops attacked, IDF intelligence determined that while “the Lebanese army’s supreme command is not interested in an outbreak of military hostilities with Israel… the order to open fire… was influenced by the belligerent attitude of the Lebanese army.”
Several analysts speculated that Hizbullah may have prompted its sympathizers in the LAF to launch the ambush to divert attention from a UN probe which is expected to soon indict several of its top operatives for the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. The Hariri probe is threatening to spark new sectarian violence.
After the ambush, Hizbullah chief Hassan Nasrallah gave a televised speech on the fourth anniversary of the 2006 Second Lebanon War in which he said that, although his group had shown restraint in not joining the fight, things would be different next time. He also reiterated his longstanding argument that Lebanon needs his terror militia (which is much better trained, organized and equipped than the Lebanese Army) to defend the country against “Zionist aggression.”
But most notably, Nasrallah used the occasion to present ‘evidence’ that Israel was behind the Hariri assassination. This included a recorded second-hand conversation suggesting an alleged agent for the Mossad had personally warned Hariri that Israel was plotting to kill him; the supposed intention of the warning was to force the expulsion of 35,000 Syrian troops from the country, as eventually happened.
Nasrallah himself admitted the evidence was not sufficient to prove his accusations, but his speech was dramatic because it included video feeds from Israeli drone aircraft that Hizbullah had managed to intercept back in 1997 in order to stage a lethal ambush against an elite IDF commando raid. The video shows how Israeli intelligence was also keeping an eye on Hariri, who died in a powerful roadside bombing as his motorcade drove along the Beirut waterfront.
Although there was no official Israeli response to Nasrallah’s charges, one Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post the notion was “completely ridiculous,” adding “they are looking for a way out.”
Even members of rival factions in the Lebanese parliament openly scoffed at Nasrallah’s flimsy proof, and charged it shows his level of anxiety over the Hariri probe.
Nasrallah has also been hysterically complaining that an Israeli spy ring has gained “complete control” over Lebanese telecommunications.
Indeed, more than 50 suspects have been arrested in recent months in a nationwide manhunt focused on the Alfa cell-phone company, which Beirut fears has been totally infiltrated, allowing Jerusalem to monitor not only conversations but movements by senior political and military figures. The latest arrest was of a former Maronite commander of the Lebanese army.
Hizbullah is estimated to possess an arsenal of over 40,000 short-and medium-range rockets and a force of 20,000 fighters, around a third of which have had combat training in Iran. Iran has already supplied Hizbullah with so many missiles and other military hardware that the Shi’ite terror militia is considered stronger than the Lebanese army.
For that reason, in 2006 the US started to supply the Lebanese army with US military equipment, funneling over $750 million in assistance ever since. But last month’s border skirmish prompted several prominent members of Congress to put a hold on this year’s $100 million allotment, and to call for a review of future US military aid to the LAF, lest it fall into Hizbullah hands and be used against the IDF.
Lebanese Defense Minister Elias Murr responded that the US could “keep the money” if military aid were conditioned on it not being using against Israel, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps immediately offered to replace America as Lebanon’s main arms supplier. In addition, the Italian daily Corriere Della Sera reported that Turkey is poised to join Iran in helping Hizbullah obtain sophisticated new armaments.
Despite the massive infusions of Western aid, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has been intimidated into allowing Hizbullah to retain its weapons, and has been slowly sliding toward the Iranian camp. He is set to host Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in early September – a visit that could solidify Beirut’s eastward shift. Thus, Hizbullah may not be interested in a renewed conflict with Israel as much as a de facto takeover of Lebanon.
Meanwhile, Israel is now leery of Lebanese army units doing Hizbullah’s bidding, even as it has new reason to be skeptical about relying on outside peacekeeping forces like UNIFIL.