Lebanese Army Standing Up to Israel

Since the Second Lebanon war - as it is called in Israel - in 2006 between Israel and the Shiite Hezbollah militia based in south Lebanon, there had been relative calm in border areas. February 2007 has seen a series of events heighten tensions between forces on both sides of the border. This time, though it is the Lebanese army facing off against Israeli forces, not Hezbollah.


Feb. 24 saw a stand-off between Israeli forces and the Lebanese army. The National News Agency reported that Lebanese infantry soldiers were on a routine border patrol when they were surprised by an Israeli patrol on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Some of the Israeli soldiers were pointing their weapons at the Lebanese and the Lebanese army mobilized troops ready to deal with any ensuing military action.

A tense 25 minutes later, the Israeli soldiers withdrew to the Israeli settlement of Mutilla and Spanish troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) took over the patrol. Three UNIFIL bulldozers were stationed at Fatima gate, where the stand-off took place to prevent any ensuing clashes. Under the U.N. brokered Resolution 1701, which brought the ceasefire that ended the summer conflict, the Lebanese army and UNIFIL were designated to patrol the border.

Just two days before the border incident, Lebanese anti-aircraft guns fired on Israeli warplanes as they flew low altitude reconnaissance missions over south Lebanon on Feb. 22. Israeli jets have been flying such missions over Lebanon for years, but this is the first time the Lebanese army has opened fire. In the recent war, Israeli jets flew thousands of combat missions over Lebanon, inflicting heavy civilian casualties and the Lebanese army remained neutral. U.N. Resolution 1701 reiterated the UN's support for Lebanon's territorial integrity and sovereignty. The resolution has not stopped the flyovers, which have continued without response from the Lebanese army since the war ended.

On Feb. 7 Lebanese and Israeli troops exchanged fire at the border near Marun al-Ras, the scene of heavy fighting in the recent war. According to totallyjewish.com, the Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] were combing for mines between the Israeli fence and the Lebanese border. Lebanese troops, who accuse the IDF of crossing the border, fired shots into the air. The IDF warned that they would respond if the shots continued; when their warning wasn't heeded the IDF fired two tank shells in the direction of the gunfire. No injuries were reported.

Throughout the summer war, the Lebanese military had remained neutral and the government seemed reluctant for them to fight Israeli forces. The Lebanese army acting now could signify an attempt by the Lebanese government to counter Hezbollah's growing support and influence in south Lebanon.

Hezbollah started out as a militia in 1985 and its main objective was to force an end to the first Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. Since then Hezbollah has evolved into a hybrid political movement/militia with popular support from Lebanon's Shia population. Hezbollah is heavily armed and massively funded by Iran and Syria and had 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament before the November resignations.

Hezbollah's support increased during the July [2006] war, --as it is called in Lebanon-- as the population grew angry at what seemed like indiscriminate killing of Lebanese civilians by the Israeli forces, and at the government for not ordering the army to take action. Hezbollah held its own in many gun battles with Israeli forces, building popular acclaim for the group, although the Lebanese people who believed Hezbollah were responsible for starting the war were angry with it for prolonging the conflict.

When the war ended, Hezbollah was credited with a victory because, although heavily outmanned and outgunned, it maintained fierce resistance until international pressure forced Israel to withdraw. The so-called victory increased Hezbollah's support even further at a time when government popularity was dwindling.

Hezbollah attempted to capitalize on the situation, demanding a unity government in late October-early November, which would have given the group veto power in government decisions. When a deal was not reached, five Hezbollah and AMAL members resigned on Nov. 12, leading to fears over whether the government could continue. At least eight members would have to resign before the government could be considered dissolved, but it was feared that without sufficient representation of the majority Shia community the government would struggle.

Hezbollah planned a protest to ratchet up the pressure on the government, but it was postponed when Christian and anti-Syria (Hezbollah's ally) industry minister Pierre Geymal was assassinated on Nov. 21.

Many believe Syria was responsible for the assassination, because their operatives were implicated in a U.N. report of an investigation into the similar assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri. The U.N. report was sponsored by the U.S. and U.K., staunch adversaries of Syria. Hezbollah could also be held responsible as it had the same motive for removing Hariri as Syria did, further weakening the Lebanese government. Conspiracy theorists claimed that Israel used the attack to foment sectarian tensions, which it did excellently, regardless of who was actually responsible.

When the planned Hezbollah protest went ahead on Dec. 1, their leader, Hassan Nasrallah released a statement:

"We appeal to all Lebanese, from every region and political movement, to take part in a peaceful and civilized demonstration on Friday to rid us of an incapable government that has failed in its mission."

800,000 Hezbollah supporters and those supporting other opposition groups did as he asked and took to the streets in a protest sit-in, surrounding the government offices and other areas in central Beirut. The army cordoned off the government offices and protesters planned to keep up the blockade until the government resigned. According to a senior opposition source, a dialogue between Arab diplomats and opposition leaders was successful in easing the blockade and ending the protest.

An undercurrent of sectarian tension remained, as well as a strong lack of faith in the government and doubts over its survival. Then and currently the Lebanese government is under tremendous pressure, pressure that Hezbollah is keen to maintain. Therefore, the Lebanese army acting against IDF and Israeli air-force actions that are harming no one, when they failed to act against the Israeli onslaught that killed thousands in the summer, can easily be viewed as an attempt by the Lebanese government to regain the faith of their people.

Von: 27.02.2007 www.lebaneselobby.org by Liam Bailey

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