Why tensions are rising along the Lebanese-Israeli border
On 12 July 2006, Hezbollah conducted a military operation along the Lebanese-Israeli border to abduct Israeli soldiers in the hopes of using them as bargaining chips to have Lebanese and Hezbollah prisoners in Israel released.
The operation saw Hezbollah capture two Israeli soldiers and kill or injure several others. In response to the operation, then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, worried about looking soft on security due to lacking military credentials, ordered the Israeli army to respond with massive force.
After 34 days of fighting, including thousands of Israeli airstrikes and Hezbollah rockets, the conflict came to an end through a UN-brokered ceasefire. Over 1,000 Lebanese were killed, the vast majority civilians, while over 4,000 were injured and at least one million displaced. Around 160 Israelis, mostly soldiers, were killed.
Now, 17 years after the start of that destructive war, tensions are once again ramping up, with both Hezbollah and Israel taking provocative actions that run the risk of putting an end to nearly two decades of relative calm.
"Seventeen years after the start of the destructive 2006 war, tensions are once again ramping up, with both Hezbollah and Israel taking provocative actions"
While both sides have so far avoided coming to direct blows, Nicholas Blanford, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs, told The New Arab that if things are not handled carefully they run the risk of escalating into a new and devastating conflict.
"Both sides would be very careful to try to not allow the situation to escalate into a full-blown conflict," he explained.
"The trouble is, if you start off with some kind of attack and counterattack and counter counterattack, it's very, very difficult to then keep it limited to a certain level without allowing it to spill over into something larger that gets out of control. It's very dangerous."
'Testing the waters'
Following the end of the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah began carrying out smaller operations along the border and inside the Shebaa Farms, an area along the Lebanese-Syrian-Israeli border that Syria, Hezbollah, and Lebanon argue is Israeli-occupied Lebanese land, despite it being internationally recognised as territory belonging to Syria.
Between the end of the occupation in May 2000 and the start of the second war in July 2006, a sort of balance was struck where Hezbollah could carry out a certain level of operations targeting Israel that would not illicit a major Israeli response.
That came to an end in 2006 after Hezbollah miscalculated Israel's response, leading to the July war.
Since then, Hezbollah has not carried out any major operations along the Blue Line, the border between Lebanon and Israel established by the UN after the end of the occupation.
"Hezbollah has been very careful since 2006 not to give the Israelis an excuse to go on another rampage in Lebanon which is why we didn't see any more Shebaa Farms operations. There have been a couple of attacks up there, but they have always been retaliations for something else that the Israelis did," Blanford stated.
Now, in the last few months, there have been new escalations not seen since before the 2006 war.
It started on 6 April when around 30 rockets were fired from South Lebanon into northern Israel. In response, Israel bombed several rural areas, which did not result in any casualties.
Then, last month, Hezbollah set up military tents in Kfar Chouba, another territory that is disputed as being Israeli-occupied Lebanese land.
According to Blanford, the area where the tents were placed was strategic because it puts Israel in a challenging situation and presents a new opportunity for Hezbollah to "test the water" with Israel and see what they are able to do before provoking a significant Israeli response.
"The situation is tense and there might be miscalculation at some point but ultimately things will calm down, both sides are not interested in full escalation"
"If they let it slide, there could be a political backlash in Israel and it could encourage Hezbollah to go and do a similar stunt along the Blue Line and the Shebaa Farms area or at least an area where there are discrepancies between the Lebanese and the Israelis about where the Blue Line actually runs," he said.
Should Israel decide to remove the tents forcefully, the terrain on the Israeli side leading to the area is very rugged and brings them close to the Lebanese side of the Blue Line.
If they inadvertently cross it, Hezbollah could use that as justification to carry out an attack on Israeli forces – a tactic that was used by Hezbollah on several occasions between 2000 and 2006.
"There are a number of options for the Israelis but they are all pretty unpalatable and Hezbollah realises that and this is why they are staying put," Blanford added.
Then, at the start of July, Israel put up concrete walls around the Lebanese half of Ghajar, a city that Israel has been occupying since the end of the 2006 war, prompting an anti-tank missile to be launched on the Lebanese side which Israel responded to with mortar fire.
This move, according to Joe Macaron, a fellow at The Wilson Center, could backfire on Israel as it looks to shore up its defences along the border.
"It is not in Israel’s interests to have this instability," Macaron told The New Arab. "Seizing this part of Ghajar will allow Hezbollah to claim the alibi of resisting Israeli occupation in this area."
Despite both sides seemingly pushing the other to see who blinks first, both Blanford and Macaron argue that neither Hezbollah nor Israel are looking to start another war.
Pulling back from the edge
A Hezbollah official once told former-Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora that "Lebanon is not Gaza".
While Israel may be more than happy to carry out military attacks in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip with relative impunity, doing so in Lebanon would start a hugely devastating conflict that has no guaranteed results.
Even while Israel has the most right-wing and extreme government in its history, one that is pushing for greater shows of military strength, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is unlikely to let that happen when it comes to Lebanon.
As evidence of Israel and Netanyahu's hesitancy to get involved in another war with Hezbollah, Blanford pointed to Israel's response to the 6 April rocket barrage.
"If the Israelis decide to do some operation to remove the tents, they will brace for a flare-up. It could last a week. It may be a limited kind of conflict which would be ridiculous over a couple of tents, but it's quite possible"
"The fact that they decided to vent their retaliation against Gaza and just crater a couple of orange orchards south of Tyre was very telling in itself that the Israelis did not want to get into some kind of escalation with Hezbollah," he stated.
"Hezbollah reads this and they interpreted the response of the Israelis back in April and this is where it leads to next – an incremental step of needling the Israelis and seeing what they can get away with by planting a couple of tents up on the Israeli side of the Blue Line and Shebaa Farms."
Macaron agreed that even though both sides are pushing each other's limits, neither has an appetite for war.
"The situation is tense and there might be miscalculation at some point but ultimately things will calm down, both sides are not interested in full escalation," he said.
The UN is preparing to send an envoy to Lebanon in the hopes of finding a way to de-escalate the situation.
With UN mediation and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon's (UNIFIL) mandate up for renewal, Macaron believes that things will eventually calm down.
If this fails, though, then Israel might decide that its only option is to remove the tents by force. In that event, it could lead to a flare-up that holds the possibility of escalating even further if not handled carefully.
"If the Israelis decide to do some operation to remove the tents, they will brace for a flare-up," Blanford stated. "It could last a week. It may be a limited kind of conflict which would be ridiculous over a couple of tents, but it's quite possible."
Nicholas Frakes is a journalist and photojournalist based in Lebanon reporting on the Middle East.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno