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Strategic Analysis: Lebanese-Israeli border tensions marked by erosion of UN resolution 1701

Lebanon

Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for a recent bombing attack near the Israeli border.

On the seven-year anniversary of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah claimed responsibility for an August 7 explosion in the Israeli-Lebanese border area, near the town of Labboune. That day, at least one explosive device injured four Israeli soldiers, who were accused by Lebanese parties and UNIFIL of crossing into Lebanese territory during a patrol in an un-demarcated area of the border.

Lebanese media outlets and politicians asserted that the IDF crossed both the technical fence and the international border, which do not coincide in some areas. Initial reports indicated that the troops were hit by a landmine which may have been a remnant from previous conflicts. The IDF has since declined to comment on the details of the incident, including whether or not troops entered Lebanese territory or whether the attack was intentional. Nasrallah claimed that Hezbollah had prior knowledge of an upcoming Israeli incursion, leading their operatives to plant explosive devices. He ended with what would some consider an ominous warning: “This operation will not be the last; we will not be lenient with those who violate our land. Whenever we feel that the Israelis have entered Lebanese soil, we will act.” The truth about what actually happened on August 7 may forever be disputed, but it remains clear that Hezbollah still seeks to avoid a conflict with Israel — despite Nasrallah’s seemingly confident claim of responsibility.

The timing and wording of his messaging, coupled with the lack of an IDF response, reinforces the assumption that the bombing was defensive in nature, and not meant to provoke. Indeed, conventional wisdom would suggest that a conflict with Israel would not suit Hezbollah at a time when its best operatives are still fighting with the Assad regime in Syria, or protecting Lebanese Shiites from a beckoning threat of attacks from Sunni jihadists. Hezbollah’s multifaceted security challenges were further highlighted on August 15, when suspected Syrian sympathizers penetrated its Beirut stronghold and detonated 60 kilograms of explosives, killing over 20people. Nasrallah understands that since 2006, the IDF has maintained assertive and heavy-handed rules of engagement protocols in the border area, including broad retaliatory fire to any attack believed to be directly attributed to Hezbollah.Therefore, the IDF’s lack of response to the bombing indicates that the patrol in question entered into Lebanese territory, thereby constituting a violation of UN resolution 1701, or that the explosion itself was indeed caused by a previously placed landmine, not a Hezbollah ambush. The notable absence of the aggressive rhetoric in this interview that has come to characterize Nasrallah’s past speeches further indicates that Hezbollah seeks to avoid an undoubtedly destructive escalation with the IDF. Nasrallah rather sought to restore Hezbollah’s image as a resistance organization meant to defend against the Israeli military, particularly as the group is coming under increasing political (and actual) fire in Lebanon for its support of the Assad regime in Syria. In this context, the broad assumption in both Lebanon and amongst UN peacekeepers that Israel had indeed violated Lebanese sovereignty provided Nasrallah with a badly-needed opportunity to reinforce the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s militia. Despite the prevailing unwillingness of both the IDF and Hezbollah to provoke each other, the August 7 bombing exposes an ominous reality in the border area, particular in that the next conflict between the two will likely be accidental.

Under UN resolution 1701, which was implemented following the 2006 conflict, Hezbollah is forbidden from operating in the border area, with UNIFIL peacekeepers and Lebanese deployed to the area to enforce this limitation. Israel is also forbidden from entering Lebanese territory under the resolution, and although the Israeli Air Force has made frequent over-flights, August 7 marks a rare occasion in which a ground force was blamed for violating Lebanese sovereignty. Despite UN restrictions, the IDF has become increasingly assertive in the border area, primarily due to understandable concerns over the a possible reduction in foreign peacekeepers, as well as concerns of a new escalation with Hezbollah itself. While the IDF is believed to assess that Hezbollah is still deterred from entering into a conflict, concerns in Israel remain that additional Israeli airstrikes in Syria may trigger a violent response from the group. Adding to Israeli concerns is Hezbollah’s desire to restore its domestic image as a resistance group. In the past, Hezbollah has provoked Israel during times of domestic strife, and concerns remain that a future provocation could occur to deflect attention from the Syrian conflict, Lebanon’s political crisis, or in response to a potential Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear program. The aforementioned concerns are augmented by Hezbollah’s increasing deployments into the border area and intimidation of UNIFIL peacekeepers, leading some contingents to withdraw.

The real danger for an escalation lies in areas that are not demarcated by the technical border fence, but yet are still considered Israeli territory. Hezbollah is known to operate in these areas, but not staged an ambush south of the international border since the 2006 ceasefire. IDF and Hezbollah activity in these demarcated areas thereby increases the risks for an inadvertent escalation. A future IDF patrol which intentionally or unintentionally crosses into Lebanese territory may be targeted by a similar Hezbollah attack, while Hezbollah may stage an attack against an IDF patrol inside border areas regarded as disputed. In either case, Nasrallah’s claiming of responsibility for the August 7 attack increases the risk that the IDF will respond forcefully to an additional ambush against IDF troops, particularly those which cause casualties. As was the case in the 2006 conflict, an IDF response would subsequently prompt Hezbollah to retaliate with rocket attacks, leading to a rapid escalation. On the streets of both Beirut and Tel Aviv, it is common knowledge that the destruction caused by this next round will be exponentially worse.

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