August 3, 2010

Drizzle in Lebanon, or Calm Before Storm?

Now a little theory on Lebanon. Today’s events could be a volcano letting off steam, but there’s no ruling out an eruption either. We’re waiting for new clashes to break out and a trend to develop before predicting a full-blown war. It does seem that Israel’s day in the sun won’t be followed by an encore though.

One day it yields to the UN, the next it attacks. One step forward, two steps back. Business as usual.

Israel and Lebanon exist in a state of 4th generation warfare, where the media may be more a decisive arena than the military. Both sides blame each other absolutely and contradictory, sparking a ferocious propaganda battle. Each supplied rapid information to favorable media sources as the incident unfolded in order to distort the actual events.

Israel says its forces approached “The Tree,” which both sides claim, in coordination with UNIFIL officials. Lebanese forces had mustered on their side of the border. An Associated Press photo showed an Israeli standing on a crane reaching over the fence that Israel erected to separate the two countries. The IDF argues, "It was over the fence but still within Israeli territory.”

At that point a verbal battle occurred, followed by one of two events. Either Lebanese snipers, acting under independent command of a higher officer, opened fire on an Israeli outpost, killing Lt. Col. Dov Harari and seriously wounding Captain Ezra Lakia. The IDF now claims the entire situation was an ambush planned by that same officer.

Or, as Lebanon claims, “Israelis crossed onto Lebanese soil despite calls from the U.N. and Lebanon to stop. When the Israelis persisted, Lebanese troops opened fire with small arms and rocket-propelled grenades.” Israel responded with tank and helicopter fire, killing two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist. How Harari and Lakia were hit wasn’t explained.

Israel would be suicidal to start a new war with Lebanon. It will gain no diversion from Palestine and Iran, only scorn. But Israel's objective doesn't appear to be a diversion; its propaganda barrage indicates an attempt to regain US and European sympathy and channel it those spheres. Pressuring UNIFIL to clamp down on Hezbollah is likely a secondary goal. Said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "I hold the Lebanese government directly responsible for this provocation.”

But he’s been saying the same of Palestinians for the last month. Netanyahu has no benefit of the doubt - he’s cried wolf too many times. And even if Lebanon opened fire first, now was a provocative time to cut down a controversial tree. MSNBC's picture isn't flattering.

Conversely, foreign factors seeking a diversion cannot be ruled out on the Lebanese side. Iran, Syria, and Egypt, all of them constantly probing for Israel’s weak-points, offered immediate military support. Or a Lebanese officer simply hated Israel enough to risk a regional war. In any case the most responsible actor appears to be Hezbollah. By offering assistance while also refraining from entering the fray, Nasrallah attached himself to Lebanon’s defense while highlighting his force’s discipline.

He is the winner in today’s clash, a Sun Tzu-like victory without fighting.

This is especially why any Israeli aggression inside Lebanon would be self-defeating. Israel was able to lean on IDF casualties and hostages to justify the July war in 2006. An exploitable George Bush was also necessary. Hezbollah clearly wants to make sure Israel starts the next conflict so that it can fight a total war with the Lebanese army. Nasrallah believes, were Israel to instigate the war, that he would win on the ground, in the international community, and in the media.

As the Freedom flotilla comes under UN investigation and America echoes Israel's call for direct talks with the Palestinians, Netanyahu would not enjoy the one month Washington approved in during 2006. World support wouldn’t last a week, maybe not even a day.

[Update: A UNIFIL official has, “confirmed that we received notification from the IDF about the work and we passed the information on to the Lebanese Army.” However Lebanon doesn’t dispute UNIFIL’s awareness, as its soldiers deployed after UNIFIL communication. More importantly, the official believed the tree in question resided in Israeli territory. A technical team dispatched to analyze the scene found that the tree was indeed on Israel’s side of the blue line, but the area is still under inspection.

The Haaretz also reports, “Israel will launch a diplomatic campaign calling on the United States and France to stop their military assistance to Lebanon following Tuesday's exchange of fire on the northern border.”]

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