The last thing the Middle East needs right now is another shooting war. But when gunfire erupted between Israeli and Lebanese troops along the border this past Tuesday, that is exactly what the Levant experienced for a few brief moments.
The border between Israel and Lebanon has been relatively quiet ever since Israel and Hezbollah decided to stop fighting one another back in August 2006. A mutual ceasefire was signed to damper down hostilities, which called for the deployment of a sizable United Nations peacekeeping force along the green line in order to ensure that a violent incident wouldn’t spark out of control. As of that agreement, the Hezbollah militia has shown restraint along the frontier, even as its weapons supply has increased to an estimated 40,000 rockets. Knowing that another violent confrontation with Hezbollah would be a costly military campaign, Israel too is content with the status quo (although it worries about Hezbollah’s growing arsenal).
But all of that changed in a split second when Lebanese soldiers fired on Israeli commandos when they were trying to trim down a tree along their side of the border. One high level Israeli soldier was shot in the head and killed. Israel responded by firing mortars and machine guns toward the Lebanese, killing two of their soldiers and a journalist.
The incident was the most violent in four years, and many in the region are deeply worried that the situation could quickly spiral into another full fledged armed conflict.
Fighting over a cypress tree is certainly a tragedy for both sides, especially when casualties are involved. But the incident could have been much worse. Hezbollah, with its vast arsenal of missiles, could have used the opportunity to provoke violence toward Israel’s northern frontier in the name of “protecting Lebanese sovereignty.” Thankfully, Hassan Nasrallah chose to stay on the sidelines during the dispute. This shows that Hezbollah is indeed weary of another violent confrontation with Israel, despite its growing military capability in Southern Lebanon.
Both the Israeli and Lebanese governments are meeting with UNIFIL to resolve the incident and to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again. It’s only a start, but the move confirms that both sides would much rather hold a fragile peace together instead of resorting to another round of shooting.
Another point to consider: Given that the UN have now confirmed that Lebanon instigated the shootout, will this force the United States to reevaluate its partnership with the Lebanese Defense Forces? Last year, Washington donated $162 million to the Lebanese Army, hoping that the money would be used to counter Hezbollah’s own military gains. Now that a violent spat has occurred, President Barack Obama may have to consider whether this policy can be sustained without strong opposition from Congress. Thanks to Daniel Levy of the Middle East Task Force for bringing this up, because it would have sailed over my head had it not been for his piece at Foreign Policy.