Despite the careful “he said … she said” approach of the mainstream news media about the clash along the Lebanese-Israeli border this week, events are quite clear: Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) were deliberately ambushed by Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
In an outdoor press conference held at a lookout point above the Lebanese border where the incident occurred, Ilan Diksteyn, the deputy commander of the Israeli brigade, explained what happened. The IDF had notified the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) of its intentions and complied with multiple requests to delay a routine job that should have started early in the morning and didn’t get going till midday.
According to Diksteyn, he had personally walked the border with the UNIFIL commander and identified all the trees and shrubs they intended to cut down, all approved of as being located on the Israeli side of the border by the UNIFIL commander. The key tree was some 200 meters from the Blue Line, so there was not the most remote possibility that Israel trespassed on Lebanese territory. The IDF even set out the crane without a man in it, just to demonstrate their intentions beforehand.
But no sooner did they put a man in the unit and lift him over the fence than a sniper shot and killed the commanding officer of the unit who was away from the border and observing from a distance. Despite claiming they fired first in the air, and that Israel initiated the hostilities, an LAF spokesman eventually asserted their right “to defend Lebanon’s sovereignty.”
The Israelis claim this was an ambush by units of the Lebanese Armed Forces. And as such, this was an unprecedented new level of aggression. Even the normally cautious UNIFIL, which the previous day had restricted itself to calling for calm and announcing its intention to investigate, eventually — and exceptionally — sided with Israel’s claim that the tree was on their side of the border. Even the Lebanese admit they carried out an ambush.
Of course, for UNIFIL to do so means that Israel had to be unquestionably and irrefutably in the right — “2-300 meters away,” the Israeli officer claimed. Otherwise the UN troops, which operate on the Lebanese side of the border and are subject to constant harassment by Hezbollah, would have found some way to equivocate if not prevaricate. After all, in violation of UN Resolution 1701, which the UNIFIL forces have been deployed to enforce, Hezbollah has managed to rearm and reoccupy the southern border. Indeed, pictures of UNIFIL troops standing side by side with heavily armed LAF troops suggest that the efforts to prevent a clash consisted primarily in getting the Israelis not to do what they had a right to do, rather than preventing the Lebanese from doing what they had no right to do.
From here on out, however, the story gets fuzzy. While some newspapers acknowledged UNIFIL’s confirmation of the Israeli “narrative,” few bothered to draw out the implications, and some, like France2, continued to insist the tree was on the Lebanese side. The New York Times, for example, in a remarkably uninformed article, acknowledged the correction, but ended up repeating the “he said … she said” dance by quoting Lebanese officials rather than questioning them about the problems. The Wall Street Journal emphasized the efforts of UNIFIL to prevent an incident, without even addressing the disturbing evidence that they collaborated in the ambush, and then took a day to state what they knew from the beginning — that Israel was on its own turf.
On the contrary, everyone, including the Israelis, is backing off drawing the disturbing conclusions. The intelligence officer who briefed reporters off-record refused to draw even the most elemental conclusions from the incident, even negating claims by major Israeli public figures that the incident was an ambush. He admitted that the Lebanese army had an increasing number of Shiites rising up to the rank of officer, and that even if they were not Hezbollah, many of them had family in Hezbollah. Israel so wants this arrangement with UNIFIL and the LAF to work that they play down their own case.
The intelligence officer even tried to suggest, without dotting the i’s, that this was a rogue incident. He characterized it as an escalation of the “spirit of the commander,” a belligerence that has grown in the past weeks, especially since a Shiite commander took over the brigade that patrols this section of the south. He alluded to a “Levantine attitude” (by which I assume he meant macho behavior), leading Lebanese soldiers to make often imaginative hand gestures at the Israelis (“do you bite your thumb at me sir?”).
Of course sniper fire aimed at a commanding officer in the background (first shot) and RPGs (after a lull) hardly seems constant with escalating the kind of chest-thumping described by the Israeli officer. And the most recent remarks from the Lebanese officer present at last night’s parlay with UNIFIL and an Israeli general make it clear that this came from the top. But theories on just what set of interests set in motion the aggression remain speculative.
In the end we have a grave incident which illustrates more clearly than anything that the Lebanese, and Hezbollah in particular, can begin a war any time they want. And that one of the main forces intended to hinder Hezbollah’s belligerence has been deeply compromised from below, from above, from both directions.
Indeed, the most widespread speculation is that Hezbollah, via sympathetic members of the LAF, provoked the incident to distract from approaching revelations by the Special UN Tribunal for Lebanon — perhaps even arrests — that would reveal major Hezbollah involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005.
Nothing better illustrates the cultural differences between Lebanon, the closest thing to a “democracy” Arab political culture has so far produced, and Israel, the only Western democratic element in the Middle East since the end of World War II. Lebanon, with a thick web of religious, clan, and political solidarities and hostilities, takes war as the norm. Even public statements reflect the kind of tribal “us-them” rhetoric that fosters conflict. Said the commander of the Lebanese army of the incident: “Your brave stand in the face of the treacherous enemy … proved to this enemy that any aggression on our people and land will not pass without a price.” He told this to soldiers in the south.
So Hezbollah, one of the most religious and most powerful of the factions in Lebanon, risks a war with a more powerful neighbor, in order to distract attention from embarrassing, potentially explosive, revelations about its Machiavellian deeds. They can do so because Israel, rather than explode at the slightest attack, has a high tipping point for violence.
This would, on some level, represent a fairly common initial relationship between democracies and “strong horse” political cultures: they provoke, the democracy shows restraint. What’s so unusual about this conflict is the way the media at best enable and at worst stoke the most bellicose elements by serving as the mouthpiece for their propaganda. It apparently teems with people East and West, for whom journalistic standards are sacrificed in an inexplicable rush to present the warmongers as oppressed underdogs.
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