The Temperature is Rising in Israel and Lebanon
Clashes and crises risk boiling over
Sea and air temperatures weren’t the only things heating up in the Levant this summer. Tensions have risen and clashes have broken out in the West Bank and Gaza, in the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, and lately along the border between Israel and Lebanon.
Media reporting last month indicated Hezbollah was seeking to capitalize on clashes between Israelis and Palestinians by carrying out provocative acts along the border with Israel. It’s led to escalating volleys of rockets and tear gas along the border with Israel claiming Lebanon instigated by firing rockets into Israel. The Lebanese army has claimed that Israel violated the border.
The Jerusalem Post chronicled the back and forth claims:
Clashes broke out Saturday afternoon between the IDF and the Lebanese army near the northern border after a heavy-duty vehicle illegally crossed into Israel.
Armed forces fired “protest dispersion” tools such as stun grenades at a tractor that crossed from the border into Israel in the Mount Dov area after surveillance identified the vehicle.
A statement released by the IDF stated that the tractor crossed the Blue Line from Lebanon into the Mount Dov area by about two meters, leading to multiple grenades being fired from Lebanon toward where the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon was stationed.
The “Blue Line” refers to the demarcation line between the countries established by the United Nations in 2000 when Israel withdrew from territory it occupied in southern Lebanon in 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war. It’s not technically a border but a temporary “line of withdrawal” according to the United Nations. You can read more about that here and here, but that’s a deeper discussion for a different post. What’s relevant today is there is still controversy over the Blue Line and which territory ultimately belongs to which country.
Here’s the Lebanese perspective on the latest clashes as expressed in the Jerusalem Post article:
Later on Saturday, the Lebanese Armed Forces said it fired tear gas at Israeli forces following the launch of stun grenades at the heavy machinery.
“Elements of the Israeli enemy violated the withdrawal line and fired smoke bombs at a Lebanese army patrol that was accompanying a bulldozer removing an earthen berm erected by the Israeli enemy north of the withdrawal line, the Blue Line, in the Bastra area,” the Lebanese army said in a statement.
“The Lebanese patrol responded to the attack by firing tear bombs ... forcing them to withdraw to the occupied Palestinian territories,” Lebanon’s army added.
For those unfamiliar with the terminology, the Lebanese statement isn’t referring to just the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it refers to all of Israel as occupied Palestinian territory and officially does not recognize Israel, despite the two countries signing a maritime border agreement last year. It complicated…
This is also why journalists, diplomats, aid workers, and other civilians who work in the region typically have two passports, as I used to when I regularly traveled the region. One passport was used for travel in and out of Israel, the other passport for the rest of the countries in the region. Israel heavily scrutinizes people entering who have passport stamps from Lebanon, Syria, and other countries hostile to Israel, and Lebanon and Syria generally will not allow entry to anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport.
It's similar to Greek and Turkish Cyprus where you need to have a second passport or get a separate piece of paper stamped when entering Turkish Cyprus.
History of Blue Line Clashes
Returning to the thread of the clashes between Israel and Lebanon, the two countries have been able to avoid escalation along the Blue Line since 2006, when the countries fought a 34-day war after Hezbollah conducted an assault in northern Israel. The clash killed eight Israeli soldiers. Hezbollah also abducted two Israeli soldiers. The terrorist organization and party in the Lebanese government demanded a prisoner exchange.
Instead, Israel responded with airstrikes against targets in southern Lebanon, including the country’s airport, which is in Hezbollah-controlled territory.
Israel’s response highlighted a longstanding dynamic in Lebanon. The Lebanese government is built on a shaky sectarian structure whereby power in the country is divided up among 18 religious sects based on their population, which was determined decades ago and has changed greatly since.
What that means is some groups have grown substantially in population, particularly Shia Muslims, and the number of Christians has decreased. Yet, the power distribution has remained the same.
That leads to frequent government collapse and lengthy periods of negotiations to form a new consensus government—the country has been unable to form a new government since October 2022. In the meantime, people suffer because there is little governance and provision of services.
Hezbollah plays a dual game as a Shia Islamist terrorist organization bent on the destruction of Israel and a political party that acts as the de facto state and government in territory it controls in Lebanon, mostly in the south and in the Beqaa Valley. It operates like a militarized mafia for the most part and doesn’t hesitate to take up arms against the Lebanese army to protect its powerbase in the country.
And Hezbollah takes unilateral action against Israel periodically, action not sanctioned or supported by the Lebanese government or army—not openly at least. As it did in 2006, those actions can drag the entire country into war.
That was the point the Israeli government made in 2006—because Hezbollah is a political party and holds seats in parliament and the cabinet, its actions are official actions by the state of Lebanon, thus when Hezbollah crosses the border and attacks Israeli troops, Lebanon is responsible.
How Far Will Hezbollah Push Now?
The concern now is whether Hezbollah will—presumably with Iranian support and prodding—escalate hostile activity along the Blue Line as clashes continue in the West Bank and Gaza. It’s risky to say the least as Hezbollah appears to be counting on Israel being distracted by both the violence in the Palestinian territories and by the ongoing judicial reform crisis that led to Israeli Air Force reservists to protest, undermining military readiness.
What Hezbollah and Iran need to factor into the equation is that a war is often the “solution” to domestic crisis, and Israel could very well mount a 2006-like response to increased Hezbollah adventurism, even with the diminished Air Force readiness.
I’ve learned not to make predictions in cases like this because Iran and Hezbollah have a habit of acting in ways a rational person would see as contrary to political or national interests.
In the meantime, I invite my paid subscribers to enjoy another section of material from the cutting room floor of Passport Stamps. In this excerpt, I visit the Baalbek temple in Hezbollah country in the Beqaa valley, interview a terrorist cleric, and attend the 2008 prisoner/remains exchange resulting from Hezbollah’s 2006 incursion and kidnapping in Israel.
Lastly, if you are in the Boston/Wellesley area, please attend my talk at Wellesley Books tomorrow night. If you know people in the area, please encourage them to attend!
Thanks for reading!