Mystery on the border

Were the clashes on the Lebanese border this week really the work of a single, over-zealous officer?

Nasrallah 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Nasrallah 311
(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 border.
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 issuing indictments.
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 Israel.
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 expansionism.
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.