The recent border skirmish between Lebanon and Israel in which a senior Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers, and a journalist from the pro-Hezb'allah al-Akhbar newspaper were killed is the most significant clash between the two countries since the 2006 summer war. While at first glance this episode may appear to be a simple misunderstanding, a closer look reveals the strategic power play.
What happened is clear. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) notified the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) that it would carry out a routine bush-trimming operation near its northern border. A part of this gardening exercise was to include the removal of a tree just beyond Israel's security fence but short of the internationally recognized border known as the "blue line." UNIFIL confirmed that it passed along this information to the Lebanese army (LAF).
When an Israeli soldier on a crane reached out to cut the tree across the security fence, Lebanese troops fired warning shots. Minutes later, after the warnings went unheeded, snipers opened fire on an IDF battalion killing an Israeli commander who was standing 200 yards inside Israeli territory. Indeed, the sniper fire was directed at Israeli forces observing from behind the security fence and not at the soldiers carrying out the clearance work. Israel responded with light arms fire, artillery fire, and a helicopter attack on the Lebanese battalion command center at al-Taybeh.
It is hard to believe that Lebanese soldiers would open fire without clearance from their higher command. More likely is that the decision came from commanders in the field, some of whom are loyal to Hezb'allah. In addition, it seems fishy that Lebanese journalists and photographers knew in advance of the Lebanese army's plan to engage the Israeli soldiers. It begs the question: why were Lebanese reporters present before the incident took place? After all, the Lebanese journalists wounded and killed in the crossfire are affiliated with Hezb'allah news sources. The incident was most likely designed to deliver a message -- but its intended recipient was Lebanon and the wider Middle East this time, not Israel.
The flare-up along the border must be seen in the context of rising political tensions within Lebanon, the increasing potential for a Hezb'allah-Israeli conflict, and power politics as usual in the Middle East. Reports and rumors are circulating that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon is preparing to hand down indictments that hold several Hezb'allah members responsible for the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese premiere, Rafiq Hariri -- the event that brought about Syria's military withdrawal from Lebanon. If it turns out that Shi'ite Muslims are responsible for murdering Lebanon's Sunni leader, sectarian violence is likely to follow.
It was this concern that prompted the recent and unprecedented joint visit to Beirut by Saudi King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Asad--two leaders who have been on opposite sides of most issues over the past decade. While the mini-summit was ostensibly designed to show support for Lebanese stability, each side calculates their strategic interests differently. The predominately Sunni Saudi Arabia would like to see a non-combative Lebanon where the Shi'ite Hezb'allah's power is kept in check and they are preferably disarmed. Syria, on the other hand, benefits from instability in Lebanon as it raises the possibility that it will again be entrusted with keeping Lebanon stable, just as it did throughout its previous 30-year occupation. Moreover, Iran and Syria both enjoy the benefits their Hezb'allah proxy brings from economic spoils to military pressure on Israel.
But Iran and Syria are not the only ones employing proxies. Hezb'allah has its own proxy in large segments of the Lebanese army. After all, the LAF stood aside in May 2008 and watched as Hezb'allah militants killed their rival's supporters in Beirut. Today, Hezb'allah has more than rearmed since the 2006 summer war and now possesses at least 40,000 artillery rockets, including far more sophisticated Iranian and Syrian weaponry. Indeed, according to their own public statements and Israeli intelligence, Hezb'allah has redeployed to areas south of the Litani River and the Lebanese army continues to look the other way.
This recent border clash between the Lebanese army and Israel serves Hezb'allah's interests well at a time when they cannot afford a direct war with Israel. And for the moment, Hezb'allah has an interest in delivering a simple message to those who would hold them responsible for killing Rafiq Hariri, as well as those outside actors who hope to see a stable Lebanon with Hezb'allah disarmed. The message is that they are the ones calling the shots in Lebanon.