Building tensions

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a media conference, held through a video link, in Beirut on August 9.-AP

Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah at a media conference, held through a video link, in Beirut on August 9.-AP

West Asia: In the first major border skirmish since 2006, three Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli military officer are killed.

THE brief military flare-up along the Lebanon-Israel border in the first week of August was, mercifully, not allowed to go out of hand. Three Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli military officer were killed in the exchange of fire. A Lebanese journalist, who had rushed in an army tank to investigate the incident, was hit by a missile fired from an Israeli helicopter gunship. The Israeli forces had apparently entered a disputed area along the contentious border between the two countries to trim a tree without getting permission from either the United Nations peacekeepers or the Lebanese Army. In response to warning shots from the Lebanese Army, the Israeli troops used heavy weapons.

In 2006, Israel used a small incident along the border to order a full-scale attack on Lebanon. The Hizbollah militia staged a valiant defence. Two Israeli soldiers were captured by the militia for crossing into Lebanon. In response, Israel launched an offensive codenamed Operation Change of Direction. The Israeli Army chief at the time had threatened to turn the clock back in Lebanon by 20 years.

The war lasted 34 days. When a ceasefire was announced, 34,000 Israeli troops were inside Lebanon. In all 1,164 people were killed, among them 162 Israelis. Lebanon's infrastructure was shattered. Also shattered was the myth of Israeli military invincibility. This time around, the U.N. peacekeepers stationed on the Lebanese side were allowed to control the situation. But the region continues to remain tense.

Many West Asia-watchers are predicting another military offensive by Israel on some pretext or the other. Israeli leaders have stated on several occasions that they want to crush Hizbollah militarily, once and for all. Since Israel's last confrontation with Hizbollah, the Shia militia has grown stronger. Its political wing, representing one-third of the Lebanese population, has further increased its influence over the government in Beirut. However, in the latest skirmish on the border, Hizbollah observed what its leaders described as maximal restraint. Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, however, warned Israel that further attacks on the Lebanese Army would not be tolerated. We will cut off the Israeli hand that reaches out to attack the Lebanese Army, he said in a speech on August 4.

Israel may have wanted to provoke Hizbollah into action so as to trigger a bigger confrontation. Nasrallah said Hizbollah fighters were on high alert but had been ordered to stand down to avoid escalation. Israel, in recent months, has alleged that Hizbollah has more than 40,000 rockets, including Scud missiles, ready to be aimed at heavily populated targets on its territory. Nasrallah has admitted to having more advanced weaponry and threatened to target major Israeli cities such as Tel Aviv if Israel launches another attack. Israel seems to be preparing the ground for a sixth attack on Lebanon. It has already launched five aggressive wars against its small neighbour in the past 32 years. The right-wing government in Israel has warned the Lebanese government that it will be held responsible for Hizbollah's actions as the party holds portfolios in the government in Beirut.

The former United States Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Dan Kurtzer, in a recent report published by the influential U.S. think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), has predicted that another Israel-Hizbollah war will break out in the next 12 to 18 months. He suggests that Israel may try to lure Hizbollah into a confrontation or openly try to target Hizb positions to weaken the group militarily. The Israeli military has started ratcheting up the war of words against Hizbollah. In the third week of August, the Israeli Army said Hizbollah had started moving its arms and weapons to the border. It also said the militia was building a secret network of arms warehouses, bunkers and command posts in preparation for a war.

The Israeli government, along with the West, accuses Hizbollah of being a proxy of the Iranian and Syrian governments. The U.S. and most of its Western allies have branded Hizbollah a terrorist organisation although its political wing is part of the ruling coalition in Lebanon. On the Arab street, Hizbollah is viewed as one of the few resistance groups that is willing and strong enough to stand up to Israel, which has the strongest army in the region. Since the 2006 war, the Lebanese Army, too, has been strengthened with arms and money flowing from the Gulf countries and the U.S.

The U.S. has given $720 million in military assistance and security aid to Lebanon since the last war. Its aim is to strengthen the Lebanese Army so that it can take on Hizbollah on its own. But after the latest incident involving the Lebanese Army and Israel, Washington announced that it was suspending its $100-million arms supply agreement with Lebanon. The Obama administration was acting out of concern that the Lebanese Army would use against Israel the arms supplied by the U.S. for legitimate self-defence. Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Murr said his country did not need arms from those countries that want to help the army on the condition that it doesn't protect the territory, border and people from Israel.

In the past four years, Lebanese politics has witnessed several changes. Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, unlike his late father Rafiq al-Hariri, is not at daggers drawn with Hizbollah and, for that matter, with Syria. The loud demands from Sunni, Druze and Christian parties to disarm the Hizbollah militia have died down. The Lebanese Army and Hizbollah are now working in close cooperation, with the militia keeping a low profile along the border. A major development has been the dramatic improvement in the relations between the governments in Beirut and Damascus.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was an honoured guest in Beirut in late July when he went there along with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in a show of Arab solidarity. It was Assad's first visit to Lebanon in eight years. Until last year, the West, along with the Lebanese government, was blaming Damascus for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Many Arab countries had ganged up with Washington to isolate diplomatically the Syrian government using the Hariri assassination as a pretext. Syrian peacekeepers, who were in Lebanon since the 1980s, had to leave the country. The Hizbollah was sidelined temporarily from the central government.

Now, when domestic political turmoil has seemingly subsided, the U.N.-appointed tribunal that is looking into a series of high-profile assassinations that occurred between 2004 and 2008, including the al-Hariri assassination, is on the verge of submitting its report. There is palpable tension all around. The visit of the Syrian and Saudi heads of state to Beirut was an effort to douse the tensions. From reports that have appeared in the media so far, the tribunal seems to have exonerated the Syrian government in the killing of al-Hariri. The blame, according to reports, is sought to be pinned on renegade elements of Hizbollah. Al-Assad said if the tribunal blamed Hizbollah, it could lead to the destruction of Lebanon.

Al-Assad reminded the world that earlier the U.N. court had blamed Syria, without any basis, plunging the region at the time into a near war. Describing the tribunal as a source of frustration for Lebanon, he called for an end to the investigation. The Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblat, said naming Hizbollah in the report could lead to a civil war similar to the one that devastated the country between 1975 and 1990. Nasrallah has already warned that if Hizbollah is unfairly blamed for al-Hariri's death, there will be a price to pay. In a speech delivered on August 3, the fourth anniversary of the divine victory over Israel in the 2006 war, he described the tribunal as a Western conspiracy to plunge Lebanon and the region once again into turmoil.

In the second week of August, Nasrallah presented new evidence of what he claimed was Israeli drone reconnaissance of the route taken by al-Hariri from his office to his residence on the day he was assassinated, along with the confessions of Israeli spies recently captured by the Lebanese government. Equally important were the confessions of an Israeli agent named Ahmed Nasrallah, who had contacted the al-Hariri security detail with the information that he was targeted for assassination by Hizbollah. Ahmed, no relation of the Hizbollah leader, was caught on tape, making a confession that he was working for Israeli intelligence. The alleged spy currently resides in Israel, after fleeing from Lebanon.

Hizbollah, which has been conducting an independent probe into the al-Hariri assassination, has concluded that Israel was behind it. Israel was looking for a way to assassinate Hariri in order to create political chaos that would force Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and to perpetuate an anti-Syrian atmosphere in the wake of the assassination, claimed Nasrallah. He insisted that the new evidence be considered by the tribunal before it submits its final report. He told the media in April that Saad al-Hariri had informed him that the tribunal would accuse some undisciplined Hizbollah members of carrying out the assassination of his father. He rejected the allegations and said that it was a dangerous project that is targeting the resistance. Nasrallah has categorically stated that he will not allow even half a member of his organisation to be arrested on the orders of the tribunal. In a recent speech, Saad al-Hariri pledged not to allow my father's blood to stir disunity in Lebanon.

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