While the Middle East—indeed, the world—is riveted by the ongoing crisis around Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate danger of a war may be on Israel’s border with Lebanon: “Exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous” was how the Independent’s Robert Fisk described it last month.
That quiet was broken Aug. 3 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) got into a firefight over tree trimming that ended up killing one Israeli and three Lebanese. Both sides backed off, but events over the past several months suggest Tel Aviv may be looking for a fight.
“Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities, the same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers,” Dan Dicker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Inter Press Service.
The IDF has been smarting since Hezbollah fought it to a standstill in the 2006 war. While the Israeli air force inflicted massive damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure during the 34-day conflict, even Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade could make little headway against Hezbollah’s tough and competent militia fighting on its home turf.
For the past two years the IDF has been training for a rematch: “Should another war break out—like the one with Hezbollah almost exactly four years ago—the Golani Brigade will not be unprepared,” reads a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. At the Elyakim army base in northern Israel, soldiers are training how to take bunkers and fight in villages.
The IDF has also made it clear the next war will be vastly more destructive than the 2006 conflict that killed 1,200 Lebanese and inflicted $10 to $12 billion in damage. The IDF has instituted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the Shiite quarter of Beirut that the Israeli air force flattened in 2006. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the doctrine means the IDF will “respond to rocket fire originating from Shiite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation.”
Over the past several months the Israelis—sometimes with Washington’s help— have unleashed a steady stream of accusations that Hezbollah is preparing for war, that Syria is smuggling arms, and that Iran is up to no good.
Israeli intelligence claims that Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and in April Israeli President Shimon Peres charged Syria with supplying the Shiite organization with powerful Scud missiles. Syria vigorously denies the charge, and the United Nations says there is no evidence for the accusation.
Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a “U.S. defense official” told the newspaper that Iran had deployed” sophisticated” radar in Syria as an early warning device for a possible Israeli attack on Teheran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. State Department’s Philip Crowley chimed in that the radar was a “matter of concern” because of Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.
Added to the growing tension on Lebanon’s southern border was the exposure of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation aimed at Hezbollah that had successfully penetrated Lebanon’s telecommunication system. More than 70 suspects have been arrested and some 20 charged with treason.
According to UPI, intelligence observers say the ring was uncovered because Israel could be gearing up for war and took some chances. “It may have been the Israelis drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah’s military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict…that prompted the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.”
The tree-trimming incident is an indication of how volatile the Lebanese-Israeli border is. While the Israelis claim they were on their side of the border, the UN only drew that border in 2000, and Beirut has never fully accepted it. While the UN found the tree was on Israel’s side of the border, Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri said the section is “Lebanese territory.”
One reason for Lebanon’s sensitivity over the border is that its placement may have relevance to the enormous natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Extended out to sea, a matter of a mile or so in the land border could affect whether Lebanon has a claim on some of the gas.
The U.S. Geological Service estimates the fields could yield up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the Israelis have already laid claim to it. When the Lebanese protested, Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel “will not hesitate to use force” to defend its claim on the gas field. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, responded, “Lebanon’s army, people and the resistance will be ready to thwart any attempts to steal its resources.”
Added to the tense border, natural gas deposits, and Israel’s cold war with Syria and Iran, is a UN investigation that, according to most reports, will charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah claims the investigation is an Israeli plot and that Tel Aviv pulled off the hit, but it has yet to produce any evidence to support that charge.
The UN charge could have a destabilizing effect on Lebanon—Hezbollah is the country’s most important political and military force—and a destabilized Lebanon is in no one’s interest, with the exception of Israel and possibly the U.S. That is why long-time antagonists Saudi Arabia and Syria huddled in Damascus and then flew to Beirut July 30 to confer with the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on how to avoid a Lebanese meltdown.
In the middle of all this, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress decided to stick their finger in the pie and hold up $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese army. “I am concerned that the training and equipment we have provided the LAF for the purposes of counter-terrorism may in fact be used by the LAF against the Israelis,” said House Armed Service Committee chair, Ike Skelton (D-Mo). Skelton went on to say that, since the LAF collaborated with Hezbollah, the latter organization was an “indirect recipient of our aid.”
The U.S. started aiding the LAF after the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” put a pro-Washington coalition into power and forced Syria to withdraw following the assassination of Hariri. But the reality of Lebanon’s complex and fractious politics soon reasserted itself and what finally emerged from the last round of elections was a coalition government in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role. Regardless of what the Americans think of the Shiite group, marginalizing the largest ethnic group in the country is not an option.
That the military aid the U.S. is sending could pose a threat to Israel is simply silly. Most the aid consists of body armor, uniforms and unarmored Humvees. It includes neither warplanes nor anti-aircraft, and the tanks are M41 Walker “Bulldogs” designed for the Korean War. The Walker is an under-armored, gas guzzling light tank that wouldn’t last five minutes against the Israel’s modern armor or anti-tank weapons. Indeed, one military expert remarked that he was surprised there were any M41s—a weapon more “quaint” than threatening—that still ran.
If a war does break out between Hezbollah and Israel it might spread to Syria, and even Iran. In his recent report to the Council on Foreign Relations entitled “A Third Lebanon War,” former U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argues that Israel is likely to initiate the war, and that it might “also use the conflict with Hezbollah as a catalyst and cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The former ambassador said Syria might also be a target. Kurtzer predicts a crisis sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, “but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly.”
One explanation for Israel’s unwillingness to escalate the tree-trimming incident was because its antagonists were the LAF, not Hezbollah. Kurtzer—who was a Middle East advisor to President Obama during the last election—says Israel would rather “lure [Hezbollah] into a war.” In the tree trimming crisis the Shiite group stayed on the sidelines.
“Hezbollah is keen to avoid an escalation,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, “knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement in Lebanon, and more broadly to the region.”
As analyst Jim Lobe points out, the Obama administration has little ability to prevent a war because it is hamstrung by its refusal to engage with either Iran or Hezbollah, and because it has allowed the Republicans to derail its efforts to improve relations with Syria.
A uniquely dangerous time, indeed.
For more of Conn Hallinan’s essays, visit Dispatches from the Edge.