The momentous importance of yesterday’s ‘skirmish’ across the blue line is only beginning to sink in. There are several unexpected aspects to this event. Not only is it the first armed incident on the border to involve Israeli victims since 2006, it is also the first time in living memory – ok, since 2000 at least – that the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) actually returned fire and fought the IDF. Another remarkable aspect is that the incident took place only days after the Saudi king, the Qatari emir and the Syrian president, discreetly joined by high functionaries of the Jordanian and Egyptian governments, held a summit in Beirut – and on the exact anniversary of the end of the July war of 2006. It also happened only hours before Hezbollah’s secretary-general Nasrallah was scheduled to deliver a speech to commemorate the ‘divine victory’ of 2006. Hezbollah meanwhile was careful to stay out of sight during and after the incident. All of this points to a carefully prepared and highly coordinated operation – the first meaningful implementation of the doctrine adopted in the statement of intention issued by the national unity government formed after last June’s elections, which asserted that the LAF would stand by the resistance in the defense of Lebanon. Of course, the incident was sparked by an Israeli breach of Lebanese sovereignty (and UNSC 1701), but Israel’s hubris makes incidents like this a daily occurrence anyway – only a few days ago they fired rockets at a Lebanese fishing boat in Lebanese waters, and then went on to shell a UNIFIL post just for fun or target practice. Overflights of war planes are literally a daily occurrence – the LAF regularly shooting at them, but not sorting much effect, woefully undersupplied in effective air defense equipment as it is. Kidnappings of Lebanese shepherds – even goats – by the IDF are equally regular events. So the Israelis make it incredibly easy to provide the Lebanese army with provocations to its heart’s content – confident that the LAF will forever stick to its inferiority complex and allows the Israelis to keep walking all over its soldiers. So this time, they decided to cut a tree situated behind their own ‘security fence’ on Lebanese territory – ‘disputed’ of course, in the best Israeli tradition of landgrabbing on all sides – to replace it with a camera.
But being walked over is exactly what the LAF didn’t do yesterday and it obviously took the overconfident IDF completely by surprise. Their military reaction was ridiculously flailing and uncoordinated – and in the best of IDF traditions of course involved shelling civilian targets and killing a journalist. Israeli reactions on the political level equally showed a total loss of the plot. For lack of demonstrable involvement of the resistance, Netanyahu and co incredibly claimed that the LAF is ‘infiltrated’ by Hezbollah people. Of course Hezbollah has people in the army, just like any other Lebanese organisation and every section of the Lebanese population – sectarian quotas are scrupulously maintained in every state institution. And of course the LAF should defend the country against attacks by hostile elements as best it can, that is after all the purpose of any national army. Since Israel and Lebanon are at war since 1948, there should be no surprise involved here and no explanations of ‘infiltration’ are required to explain anything.
On the Lebanese side, all parties that matter are united in their support of the army and condemnation of the IDF – from president Suleyman to PM Hariri to Nabih Berri’s Amal. Of course, some of the hardline remnants of the rapidly shrinking March 14th block are spouting predictably anti-Hezbollah and pro-Israel statements, but they are left with very little popular support. Geagea and Gemayyel’s eternal misreadings of the situation and consistent refusal to find any common ground have left them quite isolated – they were the only parties not to be invited to last weekend’s Arab mini-summit in Beirut, to mention but one thing (and then childishly went on to say that they were ‘not interested’ anyway). Even Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs Abu Al-Gheith and the Jordanian government immediately condemned the Israeli side – in stark contrast with July 2006, when they and Saudi Arabia started out condemning Hezbollah’s ‘adventurism’. Yesterday, these ‘moderate’ US allies were on the same line as the ‘resistance front’ – Syria, Iran and Hamas.
The message is obvious: from now on, the army and the resistance will cooperate and the Lebanese government, as well as those of most of the Arab regimes, are behind them (the latter at least on the rhetoric level). To drive the message home, the Lebanese army command today authorised troops to fire on any IDF soldier violating Lebanese territory without contacting superiors for advance permission. Hezbollah’s non-intervention was thus a rather brilliant ploy both on the domestic political level and on the international diplomatic scene. Domestically, Hezbollah first does not want to be seen as ‘starting’ a new devastating Israeli attack and secondly is under heavy attack from leaks and/or rumours concerning the Special Tribunal for Lebanon – which is claimed to be on the verge of indicting Hezbollah members for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005. Nasrallah has recently claimed that the STL is guided by Israeli and US interests bent on implying Hezbollah and consistently neglecting to investigate the Israeli track. Which is of course correct, and the fact that much of the tribunal’s evidence is linked to mobile phone records, while the phone companies turn out to be replete with Israeli spies, will not lend any more credibility to its findings. Neither will its various informants that were later proven to be plants and frauds, nor its shabby and leaky communications methods. In his speech yesterday night, Nasrallah has promised that next Monday, August 9th, he will give another speech to present ‘hard and irrefutable evidence’ that Hariri was executed by the Mossad. In short, with all these accusations flying around and creating serious political tension within Lebanon, Hezbollah does not want to be seen as engaging in fighting the IDF to ‘detract attention’ from its supposed involvement in the assassination.
Internationally, some of the same motives are playing, in addition to the fact that an all-out attack on Lebanon by the IDF ‘provoked’ by the LAF instead of Hezbollah would not go down well with the international community or be an easy sell in the UNSC. Israel fighting Hezbollah is one thing – Israel fighting the LAF will destroy its last shred of credibility and definitely reduce the country to pariah status in the eyes of all the world (excepting the AIPAC-controlled US government of course). Maybe I am reading too much into this, but it seems a devilishly clever ploy and the cooperation of so many traditionally divided and antagonistic parties against the real common enemy is a very hopeful sign indeed. Not to mention the morale boost for the LAF which did very well in the confrontation with an infinitely better armed enemy, killing a lieutenant-colonel and critically wounding another soldier before the IDF resorted to its usual massive-overkill-from-the-safety-of-the-air tactics.
As a Lebanese friend dryly pointed out yesterday, that tree must be feeling really important now…
Then again, maybe I am reading too much into this. Update: 10:05am AFP: Israeli troops cut down the tree that caused deadly clashes on Tuesday.