New tensions in Lebanon

Bassem Aly , Saturday 14 Aug 2021

With the country already going through an economic and political crisis, the new border tensions between Hizbullah and Israel are particularly unwelcome for Lebanon

New tensions in Lebanon
(photo: AFP)

For almost a week, Israel and militants from the Iran-backed Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah have been carrying out attacks against each other across the border between Israel and Lebanon.

 It is not clear why either side has chosen to take part in a military escalation at this time. Although Israel attacked Hizbullah targets in the border area last year, the last time there were major security tensions was at least six years ago.

Based on Israeli and Hizbullah statements, there is little appetite for another full-scale war like that which took place between the two sides in 2006.

Spokesman for the Israeli military Amnon Shefler said that “we do not wish to escalate to a full war, yet of course we are very prepared for that.” He said that Israel believes that Hizbullah does not want to escalate the situation either, which is why it had targeted “open areas”.

A speech last Sunday by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah also reflected the Shia group’s keenness to show its preparedness for war, yet without stressing any urgent need for it.

Nasrallah, who has been speaking to his supporters from unknown locations via video link for years, said Hizbullah would respond in a “appropriate and proportionate” manner to any Israeli airstrikes on Lebanon.

He said that “our response was linked to the Israeli strikes that have occurred in south Lebanon for the first time in 15 years,” adding that “we are not looking for war, and we do not want to head towards war, but we are ready for it.”

No serious damage or loss of life has taken place in the fighting thus far. But the situation is alarming for many international actors, including Washington and the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

The head of mission of UNIFIL contacted both parties as soon as the violence began. UNIFIL said it was working with the Lebanese army to “ensure immediate follow-up on the group and to reinforce security along the Blue Line” between Israel and Lebanon.

This was on 4 August when Israel said that Hizbullah had launched rocket attacks into its territory, with one rocket exploding in an open site and the other being intercepted by the Iron Dome missile-defence system. Israel responded with an artillery operation.

On the following day, Hizbullah’s Al-Manar TV station reported that Israel had launched two aerial operations on the outskirts of the town of Mahmudiyah in Lebanon 12 km from the Israeli border. According to the Lebanese army, 92 Israeli artillery shells were fired towards southern Lebanon after the Hizbullah rocket attacks.

It said that it had started an investigation into who had fired the rockets. Last Friday, the Israeli army said that Iron Dome had intercepted 10 of 19 rockets sent into its territory by Hizbullah. Six of them fell in open areas, and three ended up inside south Lebanon, it added.

Observers are linking events in south Lebanon to July’s alleged attack by Iran on an Israeli-managed oil tanker in the Gulf that led to the deaths of two crew members, one British and one Romanian.

Tehran has denied any involvement in the attack. Israel, the US, and Britain have said they will work with their allies to provide a response to the attack on the tanker.

Hizbullah is a major ally of Iran in the region, and the border clashes in Lebanon could be understandable in this context, observers note. But perhaps the bigger issue is the implications of the Israeli-Hizbullah conflict for Lebanon itself.

Israel and the US have called on the Lebanese government, an administration currently suffering from an apparently endless list of socio-economic and political challenges, to act against Hizbullah.

The US called on the Lebanese government to “urgently prevent such attacks and bring the area under its control.” A harsher tone was offered by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who stressed that “the country of Lebanon and the army of Lebanon have to take responsibility for what happens in their backyard.”

Lebanese political leaders have expressed concerns at these developments, with Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces and no friend of Hizbullah, saying that “what is happening in the south is dangerous, very dangerous, especially in the light of the great tensions emerging in the region.”

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hizbullah, said that this was the first time Israel had used aerial power to attack targets in Lebanon since 2006. He said this suggested “an intention to escalate the attacks”.

Nasrallah also pointed to the implications of the border violence for Lebanon, warning Israel not to “miscalculate by saying that Hizbullah is too busy with Lebanon’s problems.”

Rabha Seif Allam, a Lebanon expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said that Hizbullah was more interested in solving Lebanon’s political problems, mainly the formation of a new government.

“Hizbullah doesn’t want to be responsible for dealing with Lebanon’s challenges on its own, which will probably be the case if no new government is formed,” Allam said. He said this might be different from the position of Aoun, who is the “only winner from the current deadlock”.

Since last August’s devastating port blasts in the Lebanese capital Beirut, two Sunni leaders, diplomat Mustapha Adib and former premier Saad Al-Hariri, have both failed to form a new coalition government in Lebanon.

Najib Mikati, a businessman and former prime minister, is now trying to get this done, though he has warned that the process is taking longer than expected. In addition to the political uncertainty, Lebanon is also suffering from an economic crisis characterised by fuel, electricity, and medicine shortages and a currency collapse.

Nasrallah, allied with Aoun as the country’s president and the Shia Amal Movement leader Nabih Berri as the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, said in June that “I want to stress that I promised, and I’m still promising... that if we have to go to Iran to get petrol and fuel oil we will, even if it causes problems.”

Among these “problems” could be the refusal of western and Arab governments to back Lebanon economically until a new coalition government is in place.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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