People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 36

September 05, 2010


Lebanon-Israel: Looming War Clouds


Yohannan Chemerapally


THE mercifully brief military flare up along the Lebanese-Israeli border in the first week of August, was not allowed to go out of hand despite the death of five people. Three Lebanese soldiers and an Israeli military officer were killed in a short exchange of fire. A Lebanese journalist, who had rushed to investigate the incident in a Lebanese army tank, was also killed, by a missile from an Israeli helicopter gunship. Israeli forces had entered a disputed area along the contentious border between the two countries to trim a tree without getting permission from the UN peace keepers or the Lebanese army. In response to warning shots from the Lebanese army, Israel had opened up with heavy weaponry.


In 2006, a small incident along the border had led to Israel ordering a full scale Israeli attack on Lebanon and the Hezbollah militia staging a valiant defence. Two Israeli soldiers were captured by the militia when they trespassed across the border. Two Israeli soldiers, part of a group that had crossed into Lebanon, in hot pursuit, were killed in action. In response, Israel launched its military offensive---“Operation Change of Direction”. The Israeli army chief at the time had threatened to “turn the clock back in Lebanon by 20 years”. The war lasted 34 days. When a cease fire was announced, 34,000 Israeli troops were inside Lebanon. In all 1,164 people were killed, among them 162 Israelis. Lebanon’s infrastructure was shattered. Also shattered was Israel’s myth of military invincibility.


This time around, the UN peacekeepers stationed in Lebanon were allowed to step in and douse the situation. But the region continues to remain tense. Many West Asia watchers are predicting another military offensive by Israel on some pretext or the other. Israeli leaders have stated on several occasions that they want to militarily crush Hezbollah, once and for all. Since Israel’s last confrontation with the Hezbollah, the Shia militia has grown stronger. Its political wing, representing one-third of the Lebanese population, has further increased its political influence and holds virtual veto power over the government in Beirut. However, in the latest incident on the border with Israel, the Hezbollah observed, what its leaders described as “maximal restraint”. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, however warned Israel that further attacks on the Lebanese army will not be tolerated. “We will cut off the Israeli hand that reaches out to attack the Lebanese army”, he said in a speech on August 4.    


The Israelis may have wanted Hezbollah to react so as to trigger a wider confrontation. Sheikh Nasrallah has said that Hezbollah fighters were on high alert but were ordered to stand down to “avoid escalation”. Israel in recent months has alleged that Hezbollah has more than 40,000 rockets, including Scud missiles, ready to be aimed at heavily populated targets on its territory. Nasrallah has admitted to having more advanced weaponry and has threatened to target cities like Tel Aviv, if Israel launches another aggression against Lebanon. Israel seems to be preparing the ground for a sixth attack on Lebanon. It has already launched five aggressive wars against the small country in the last 32 years. The right wing government in Israel has been warning the Lebanese government that it will be held responsible for Hezbollah’s actions as the party holds portfolios in the government in Beirut.





 The former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Dan Kurtzer, in a recent report published by the influential US think tank ---The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), has predicted another Israel-Hezbollah war will break out in the next 12 to 18 months. He suggests that the most likely scenarios are of Israel trying to lure the Hezbollah into a confrontation or openly try to target Hezbollah positions to degrade it militarily. The Israeli military has started ratcheting up the war of words against the Hezbollah. In the third week of August, the Israeli army said that Hezbollah had started moving its arms and weapons to the border. It also said that the militia is building secret network of arms warehouses, bunkers and command posts in preparation for a war. 


The Israeli government, along with the West, accuses the Hezbollah of being a proxy of the Iranian and Syrian governments. The US and most of its western allies have conveniently branded Hezbollah a terrorist organisation though the political wing is part of the ruling coalition government in Lebanon. On the Arab street, Hezbollah despite being described as an Iranian proxy, is viewed as being among the few resistance groups willing as well as capable of standing up to Israel, which has the strongest army in the region. Since the 2006 war, the Lebanese army too has been strengthened with the help of arms and money from the rich Gulf countries and the US.


Washington has given $720 million as military aid to Lebanon since 2006. Their aim was to make the Lebanese army tough enough to take on the Hezbollah on its own. But after the latest incident involving the Lebanese army and Israel, Washington announced that it was suspending $100 million arms supply agreement with Lebanon. The Obama administration was acting out of concerns that the Lebanese army would use the American supplied arms for legitimate self-defence against Israel. The Lebanese defence minister, Elias Murr, said that his country does not need arms from those countries “that want to help the army on the condition that it doesn’t protect the territory, border and people from Israel”. 


But in the last four years, a lot of things have changed in Lebanese politics. Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, unlike his late father, Rafiq Hariri is not at daggers drawn with Hezbollah and for that matter, Syria. The loud demands from Sunni, Druze and Christian parties for the Hezbollah militia to disarm have faded. The Lebanese army and the Hezbollah are now closely cooperating, with the militia keeping a low profile along the border. A major development has been the dramatic improvement in relations between the governments in Beirut and Damascus.


The Syrian president, Bashar al Assad, was in fact an honoured guest in Beirut in late July. He had gone there along with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in a show of Arab solidarity. It was Assad’s first visit to Lebanon in eight years. Till last year, the West along with the Lebanese government was blaming Damascus for the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Many Arab countries had ganged up with Washington to diplomatically isolate the Syrian government using the Hariri assassination as a pretext. Syrian peacekeepers who were in Lebanon since the eighties, had to leave the country. The Hezbollah was temporarily sidelined from the central government. 





Now, when domestic political turmoil has seemingly subsided, the UN appointed tribunal that is looking into the high profile series of assassinations that occurred between 2004 and 2008, including that of Hariri, is on the verge of submitting its report. There is palpable tension all around. The visit of the Syrian and Saudi heads of state to Beirut was an effort to douse the tensions. From reports that have appeared in the media so far, the tribunal seems to have completely exonerated the Syrian government in the killing of Hariri. The blame, according to reports, is sought to be pinned on “renegade elements” of the Hezbollah. The Syrian president has said that if the finger of suspicion is pointed at Hezbollah by the tribunal, it could lead to the destruction of Lebanon.


Assad reminded the world that earlier the UN Court had blamed Syria, without any basis, plunging the region at the time into near war. President Assad called for an end to the UN’s investigation describing the tribunal as an albatross for Lebanon. The Lebanese Druze leader, Walid Jumblat, said that naming Hezbollah could lead to a civil war similar to the one which devastated the country from 1975 to 1990. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has already warned that if Hezbollah is unfairly blamed for the Hariri murder, there will be a price to pay. In a speech delivered on August 3, the fourth anniversary of the “divine victory” over Israel in the 2006 war, Nasrallah described the UN appointed tribunal as a western “conspiracy” to plunge Lebanon and the region once again into turmoil.


In the second week of August, Nasrallah presented dramatic new evidence of what he claimed was Israeli drone reconnaissance footage of the route taken by Hariri from his office to his residence on the day he was assassinated, along with the confessions of Israeli “spies” recently captured by the Lebanese government. Equally important was the confessions of an Israeli agent named Ahmed Nasrallah, who had contacted the  Hariri security detail with the information that that he was targeted for assassination by the Hezbollah. Ahmed, no relation of the Hezbollah leader, was caught on tape, confessing that he was working for Israeli intelligence. The alleged spy currently resides in Israel, after fleeing from Lebanon.


 Hezbollah has been conducting its own probe into the Hariri assassination for the last year and a half. Their probe has concluded that Israel was behind the Hariri assassination. “Israel was looking for a way to assassinate Hariri in order to create political chaos that would force Syria to withdraw from Lebanon, and to perpetuate an anti-Syrian atmosphere in the wake of the assassination”, Nasrallah claimed. Nasrallah insisted that the new evidence should be considered by the UN tribunal before it submits its final report. The Hezbollah leader had told the media last month, that the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri had informed him that the tribunal will accuse “some undisciplined Hezbollah members” of carrying out the assassination of his father. He rejected the allegations and said that it was a “dangerous project that is targeting the resistance”. Nasrallah has categorically stated that he will not allow even “half a member of his organisation to be arrested” on the orders of the UN tribunal. In a recent speech, Saad Hariri, pledged not to allow “my father’s blood to stir disunity in Lebanon”.