A Warning on Israel’s Northern Border

The precise details of the events on the Israel-Lebanon border Tuesday are still unclear. But from what we have now, a picture is starting to develop.

UNIFIL has confirmed that the Israelis who were shot at were on their side of the Blue Line, the de facto border between Israel and Lebanon. There is a security fence near there, but it does not follow the Blue Line precisely, and in

Israel-Lebanon Border

the area where the incident took place, the fence is inside of Israeli territory, leaving a small area of “no man’s land” that Lebanon claims as its own, but which is recognized internationally as part of Israel.

Back in 2006, Hezbollah operatives used surrounding growth to launch a sneak attack against Israeli troops, precipitating the massive Israeli response that led to the war that summer. As a result, Israel routinely removes some of the brush in the area. In this case, it seems UNIFIL and the Lebanese army was notified and, while UNIFIL asked Israel to delay for a day for their commander to return, Israel waited only a few extra hours. But the area in question was on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, so this cannot possibly be called anything more than an annoyance.

The Lebanese army commander in the area apparently was ordered to fire warning shots, and it remains unclear whether he ever did that or whether shots were immediately fired at an Israeli observation post behind the fence, where the one IDF officer was killed and another wounded. In the moment, when soldiers are fired upon from a distance, it is often impossible to know where the bullets were aimed—and, in fear for one’s life, one is not apt to start an investigation on the spot.

If indeed the orders from Lebanon’s military leadership were to fire warning shots if Israel crossed the fence, without confirming that they had crossed the Blue Line, this is very irresponsible. If the Lebanese commander at the scene made his own decision to shoot at the Israelis, this is not only criminal because of the deaths it caused, but also for the very real risk that war might have broken out as a result and, even though it didn’t, that this incident would escalate an already tense situation on the border.

The incident illustrates a few points. Perhaps the most obvious is that Israel , from all appearances, was in the right in this instance and the United Nations backed them up. So maybe the UN isn’t the automatic anti-Israel counter its detractors like to claim. That’s not to say there aren’t real problems in the UN, especially in places like the UN Human Rights Council and other milieus where the anti-Israel bloc holds sway, but the body itself is not automatically against Israel in all regards.

The second is the patent silliness attendant to the aftermath of this event. While Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was probably already planning to spin a conspiracy theory about Israel having assassinated Rafik Hariri to deflect an anticipated international ruling implicating members of Hezbollah in that crime, the knee-jerk reaction of Arab states to condemn “Zionist aggression” in this instance before the facts were in was reprehensible and extremely counter-productive. Solidarity with Lebanon could have been shown in much less obnoxious tones.

But Israel was not free from this malady, with their call for France and the US to stop selling arms to the Lebanese government. Yeah, that would be smart, cut off the arms to the government, and only the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah pipeline enhances defense in Lebanon.

But most important, this incident shows how imperative peace is.

It has become a mind-numbing mantra to say that the status quo is unsustainable. But this incident shows just why the mantra is true. One incident, one bad decision by one officer, a misunderstanding, or, to be sure, planned malice, can easily spark off a regional war. If Israel fights Hezbollah, it might be contained, as it was in 2006. But if Israel fights all of Lebanon, which is far more likely now, it becomes much more likely that Syria gets involved. And, while Egypt and Jordan would not actively engage in fighting against Israel, their relationships with Israel, already strained, may well collapse.

Ultimately, the issues between Israel and Lebanon are easily resolved, but they will not be until the issue of the Palestinians is resolved; the tension will remain as long as Hezbollah can make common cause with the Palestinians and as long as Palestinian refugees remain in Lebanon, which will not let them integrate into their society and further upset the already teetering demographic balance in the country.

The region as a whole is much more tense than it was four years ago. The temperature is rising over the Iran nuclear issue. Despair is growing in the Palestinian Territories, even as the Gaza siege has been somewhat eased, as the belief grows that Israel has managed to ensure the future of the settlements at the cost of a Palestinian state. The threat of a regional war is very real, and it will take very little to set off a conflict that could grow into just that.

The United States cannot allow events to flow on their own, and we cannot allow either Israeli or Palestinian excuses or fear of the political costs of concessions stop progress. If the occupation does not move to resolution in the near term, we’re just waiting for someone to light the fuse, and what the Mideast looks like after that is anyone’s guess.

The Obama Administration has gotten its warning with this incident to stop dawdling and start pursuing a serious strategy for peace. Americans should be uniting to make sure they heed it.