Israel expanding 'borders' into south Lebanon

Israel expanding 'borders' into south Lebanon
With Hezbollah fighting a war in Syria, and political splits paralysing the Beirut government, Israel looks set to use this to its advantage in south Lebanon, says Thaer Ghandour.
5 min read
28 June, 2015
UNIFIL Patrol [Mahmoud Zayyat / AFP / Getty Images]
On the eighth of June, an Israeli Army force constructed roads and installed barbed wire on the Sadana mountain heights, on the border area between Lebanon and occupied Palestine.

The next day, Qassem Hashem, an MP from the Development and Liberation bloc - led by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri - led a protest by the residents of the border town of Shebaa. The protestors demanded the removal of the barbed wire and raised the Lebanese flag on it.

Hashem said at that time, "We'll work on removing the barbed wire ourselves if an international will to remove it does not exist."

     We'll work on removing the barbed wire ourselves if an international will to remove it does not exist
- MP Qassem Hashem
In a statement for al-Araby al-Jadeed, Hashem emphasised that "Berri had followed up on this action in its details because he was worried that Israel would take advantage of the political situation in Lebanon in order to achieve gains on the ground.

Berri also sees that this file decreases the tense political debate in Lebanon because there is a consensus over Israel's aggression."

The Israeli side, however, did not decrease its aggression. On 10 June, Israeli Army forces removed the Lebanese flag, prompting Berri to revive a file that has been forgotten for a while, through organising a sit-in to demand the opening of the Abbasiyah and Ghajar - Wazzani road that has been closed since 2006.

The Israelis continued with their attacks. A few days ago, the Israeli Army attempted to "sweep the southern side of Shebaa Farms using heavy machine guns and artillery," as stated by the National News Agency, the official news body of Lebanon.

These facts on the ground are a warning that something is being prepared for south Lebanon, an issue that a Western diplomatic source talked to al-Araby al-Jadeed about.

The source said, "Israel sees that Hezbollah is busy in Syria and incapable of carrying out a broad response in the Lebanese south, and the Lebanese authority is paralysed - without a president, and with a disabled government and parliament - while the countries in the region are living crises that threaten their entity's unity and even their existence."

Based on this reality, the Western source points out that Israel sees that it is capable of achieving gains on the ground along the border, particularly in the Shebaa Farms area, which Lebanon says is still under Israeli occupation."

What is meant by "gains on the ground" in the above context is reinforcing its security presence.

     Israel sees that Hezbollah is busy in Syria and incapable of carrying out a broad response in the Lebanese south
- Western diplomat
According to the same source, "Israel had informed some international bodies that it has strong suspicions that Hezbollah is digging tunnels below the borders between Lebanon and [occupied Palestine], and that it will do whatever it deems appropriate to find these tunnels and destroy them."

The sources said that "the steps that will be taken by the Israeli Army will probably be similar to what happened on June 8."

A person close to Berri told al-Araby al-Jadeed that "the enemy has a permanent hostile intention, but for six months now, the Israeli Army has been behaving in a way that raises suspicions around Israeli statements about displacing a million and a half Lebanese and the implementation of a series of military manoeuvres, and Hezbollah's operation in Shebaa Farms as a response to the Israeli airstrike in the Golan Heights."

"Shelling the Spanish brigade and killing one of the Spanish soldiers as part of its retaliation against Hezbollah could be put in the context of the Israeli Army seeking to make changes to the rules of engagement [...] particularly that the UN, Nato, and regular armies have the coordinates for UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) positions," the source added.

The same source went on to say, "The Lebanese Army has been monitoring, for months, Israeli naval, air and ground violations."

The source added that Berri had "discussed these concerns during a meeting with the UNIFIL commander, the representative of the UN secretary general in Lebanon, and a number of Western ambassadors, who fully understood Lebanese concerns."

He also pointed out that the "Israelis may believe that they are able to increase their share in the area in conjunction with the expansion of the Iranian share as a result of the latter's nuclear deal with Western countries, and in light of the West's distractions and the [political] vacuum in Lebanon."

For his part, the official spokesman of UNIFIL Andrea Tinanti confirmed that "they don't have specific information regarding this issue," pointing out that "all divisive issues are discussed by the trilateral coordination meetings directed by the UN." He pointed out that "all forces are committed to preserving calm on the border."

When asked about the reason behind Israeli failure to remove the barbed wire it had erected on Sadana mountain, Tinanti replied, "This issue gets discussed during the trilateral meeting to prevent an increase in tensions and to solve the problem." Tinanti did not wish to reveal whether or not the issue of the tunnels was discussed during these meetings.

The issues related to Israel's intention to achieve gains on the ground come at a time when there are continued US attempts to reach a settlement between Lebanon and Israel to extract gas from one of the fields that are shared between the two countries.

The gas file is one of the most controversial issues along with Shebaa Farms, which Israel refuses to recognise as Lebanese territory.