ONLINE Only: The Thin Blue Line

If Lebanon’s unprovoked attack on an Israeli maintenance team was premeditated, it points to something darker on the horizon

Features Lebanon Middle East

Less than a week on, the brief but fatal skirmish that occurred along the Israel-Lebanon border on August 3 seems that rarest phenomenon of all Middle East disputes: an open-and-shut case. All but the least discriminating of partisans and conspiracists now know who did what to whom and when and how. Most surprising is that the United Nations, in the form of its 12,000-strong peacekeeping Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), is to thank for swiftly settling the most contentious questions of whether or not Israel had trespassed onto Lebanese territory: it hadn’t. However, there remains the broader matter of how to interpret Lebanon’s unprovoked attack on an Israeli maintenance team and its military escort; was it premeditated or spontaneous? And if it was premeditated, does that hint at something darker on the horizon? 

Here’s what we now know with some measure of certainty: On July 29, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) informed the UNIFIL Liaison Officer that it would be performing routine maintenance work at the edge of its own territory, just north of the Misgav Am kibbutz in the upper Galilee. Coordinating such clean-up operations with UNIFIL is a regular occurrence for both Israel and Lebanon as they are bound by the terms of UN Resolution 1701, which formally ended the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah War.  Israel said it had wanted to remove some shrubbery and a tree that were blocking the view of its security cameras. According to IDF Lt Col Avital Leibovich, who addressed a conference call with journalists and bloggers on Wednesday evening, this was exactly the kind of leafy coverage from which Hezbollah launched multiple kidnapping raids in 2006. The IDF further instructed UNIFIL that some of its own troops would be escorting an engineering crew for protection but that this escort, consisting of armored vehicles, tanks and flak-jacketed soldiers, would be positioned even further south of the ‘technical fence’, the barrier that physically divides Israel and Lebanon but that does not always intersect with the so-called Blue Line designating the internationally recognised boundary between the two countries.  There would later be some confusion over an Associated Press photo that showed an IDF crane reaching over the fence; the caption suggested that Israel did in fact cross into Lebanese territory and violate Resolution 1701. But the crew’s exact position, even north of the fence, was still about 200-300 meters south of the Blue Line, as has now been confirmed by UNIFIL.  (The fence/Blue Line “gap” problem could have been easily substantiated earlier in the news cycle: When I interviewed UNIFIL deputy spokesman Andrea Tenenti on August 4, he told me that the peacekeepers have begun demarcating the real border with blue barrels to prevent any unintentional crossings.)

Days before the actual maintenance work began, the Israeli officer in charge of it took the UNIFIL Liaison Officer to the exact location and pointed out which bits of foliage would be cleared. All plans were subsequently approved by UNIFIL, which duly informed the the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) of the scheduled activity, due to commence at 8.30 a.m. on Tuesday, August 3. In the event, the work was delayed for two hours that morning due to two UNIFIL requests. At 10.30 a.m., ten IDF engineers made their way toward the fence, while their military escort stayed behind, as promised, on higher terrain some 300 meters south.

LAF soldiers then began shouting at the engineers to walk away from the fence, a command the engineers evidently ignored.  It was when they moved their equipment into place, including the fence-overreaching crane caught by the controversial AP photo, that Lebanese snipers opened fire — not on the engineers themselves, it’s crucial to note, but on the military escort stationed 300 meters away.  It was this initial round of sniper fire in which Israeli senior commander Lt. Col. Dov Harari was lethally shot in the head and Capt. Ezra Lakiya was critically wounded in the chest.

The IDF retaliated with artillery, tank and then Apache helicopter munitions, targeting various LAF positions including a command centre in the nearby village of Al Taybeh, which was badly damaged along with several personnel carriers. In total, three LAF soldiers and one Lebanese journalist were killed during this first, uninterrupted exchange of fighting before a temporary ceasefire was agreed to by the Israelis in order to allow the Lebanese to retrieve their wounded.  This ceasefire was broken 30 minutes later when an LAF team launched a rocket-propelled grenade at an IDF tank, which the RPG missed.

The entire skirmish lasted just over two and a half hours.

The Lebanese military’s immediate reaction was to accuse Israel of starting the deadly exchange by crossing into Lebanese territory, a claim that UNIFIL has now debunked. It also alleged that its troops only fired warning shots into the air as an opening salvo and were then set upon by the IDF. But after UNIFIL backed Israel’s territorial position, one LAF spokesman cited by the Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar admitted that his army did indeed take aim against the Israelis, but only ‘to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty.’ 

Diplomatically, Beirut has struck a defiant posture. Following the clash, President Michael Suleiman entreated the LAF and the entire nation to ‘stand up to Israel’s violation of Resolution 1701, whatever the price’, a threat that some international observers have feared could draw both countries into another devastating war.  Although Israel has officially placed responsibility for the violence squarely on the LAF, unofficially there is a more-than-meets-the-eye explanation gaining momentum. 

IDF Lt. Col. Ilan Dikstein, deputy commander of the unit supervising the brush-clearing, told Israeli daily Ha’aretz on Thursday: ‘This wasn’t a random incident of one soldier or some crazy private. This was a preplanned army operation.’ Dikstein’s supposition was bolstered that evening when Beirut’s al-Manar television station quoted an unnamed LAF source who said that the order to fire on the Israelis had ‘come directly from the [army] command’. Not coincidently, then, did the IDF briefing on the event begin with a section titled ‘Hezbollah’s influence on the Lebanese Armed Forces’, citing the infiltration of the Islamist group into the ranks of the LAF as being more or less simultaneous with an uptick in verbal and physical threats against Israeli soldiers by Lebanese counterparts along the border.  

Also, consider Tuesday’s strange concatenation of circumstances. The journalist who was killed in the skirmish was Assaf Abu Rahhal, a correspondent for Al-Akhbar, a pro-Hezbollah newspaper whose editor-in-chief, Ibrahim al-Amine, is seen as a mouthpiece for the party’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.  Rahhal has been denounced by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt — certainly no fan of the Jewish state — as being a hireling of Hezbollah’s two patron-states, Iran and Syria. This invites the obvious question: What was a Hezbollah propagandist doing at this particular juncture at the Lebanese border at ten in the morning, two hours after the maintenance work was scheduled to have taken place?  If Lebanon intended no ‘ambush’, mightn’t it have been more cautious as to whom it invited to witness an ostensibly mundane bit of Israeli gardening? (In Washington Post column published just this morning, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, claimed that Hezbollah also dispatched a film crew to record the confrontation.)

The atmospherics preceding Tuesday’s violence were no less pessimistic.
On Monday, six Grad rockets were fired from Sinai into Israel: five hit the southern Israeli port-city of Eilat, causing no casualties, but one bypassed Israel altogether and landed just outside the InterContinental Hotel in the Jordanian town of Aqaba, killing a taxi driver and injuring four other bystanders. All six rockets, it’s now been established, were manufactured in Iran or North Korea, indicating that a proxy of Tehran — probably Hamas — was responsible.

Meanwhile, Monday also saw Hezbollah and Iranian media conduct a joint propaganda blitz over the possibility of Israel’s plans for starting a regional war that would engulf Syria, Gaza and Lebanon. The suggested purpose of this Zionist gambit would be to destabilize an already parlous domestic political situation in Lebanon relating to the UN Special Tribunal tasked with investigating the 2005 murders of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and his retinue. (It’s the Alice-in-Wonderland nature of Levantine politics that Hariri’s assassination is widely attributed to Syria and Hezbollah, while the latter now occupies key portfolios in the tenuous “unity” government led by Hariri’s son, Saad.)  Nasrallah and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad have tried for years to stifle this dogged international inquiry, which is due to hand down indictments in the next few months that will almost certainly include top Hezbollah and Syrian officials. What better way to distract one UN body than by involving another in a major conflagration with the Jews? 

For his part, Assad, who feeds off sectarianism better than most in the Middle East, has emerged from Tuesday’s battle sounding oddly unified, like a 21st-century Nasser.  Syria, said Assad, “is standing by its sister…in the face of the criminal Israeli aggression and calls on the UN to condemn and stop this aggression”, nicely eliding Syria’s two-decade occupation of this sororal relation. 

Of course, Hezbollah’s official response to the combat was to deny any involvement: “We told  our brothers, control yourselves and don’t do anything,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech hours after the border incident, denying that any of his agents had played a part. Yet he, too, was quick to gloss over enmities and divisions by which his gang had previously profited, enlisting all of Lebanon and its multi-ethnic and multi-confessional military in his grand Islamist “resistance.”

Lee Smith, a Lebanon expert and author of the recent book, The Strong Horse: The Clash of Arab Civilizations, told me that despite this climate of imminent catastrophe, Hezbollah likely doesn’t want war–at least not right now. “I’d keep an eye on Iran’s more interesting developments,” Smith said over email, citing the mullahs’ false but highly touted claim this week to have purchased four batteries of the Russian S-300 air-defence missile system (which they want to deter an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities) as well as the recent seeming attempt yesterday on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s life. “For reasons unclear to me, Nasrallah really does seem scared about the Special Tribunal, but in the end there is not much Hezbollah can do about it. This is not a Lebanese issue anymore, it’s an international one. Still, there’s always the danger of Hezbollah doing something dumb on the border.”