The international coverage of border clashes between Lebanese and Israeli military forces earlier this month may have suggested the confrontation was a mere squabble over cutting a tree that went awry in a “trigger-happy” and “conflict-prone” region. Less than a week later, one of several recent speeches by Hizballah’s Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah managed to get brief global media coverage. He presented visual and audio material suggesting that Israel may have assassinated former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005.
However, both incidents were much more than a routine tug-of-war between two long-time foes. They were part of an ongoing war between Israel and resistance forces along Israel’s northern frontier that continued even after the July 2006 Israeli offensive against Lebanon. The second phase of this war is being fought by other means and on more clandestine fronts. From spy networks that reached the highest echelons of Lebanon’s security and political establishment, to war by proxy conducted via UN forces in southern Lebanon, to international blackmail through the UN-sanctioned tribunal into Hariri’s death, the battle between Israel and Hizballah has taken on new dimensions. These dimensions have wide-ranging implications on the future of the struggle against Zionism and the success or failure of US regional imperial aims.
The 3 August border clash itself that left two Lebanese soldiers, one Israeli officer and a Lebanese journalist dead underscored several realities of the current political and military climate. Despite the incessant war-mongering by Israel over the past few months, the killing of one of its high-ranking officers — a colonel — did not translate into a massive offensive the same way Hizballah’s capturing of two Israeli soldiers did in July 2006. This clearly undermines arguments blaming Hizballah for starting the July 2006 war. Wars are rarely improvisational affairs. Specific incidents are almost always pretexts rather than triggers of war. Israel was ready and eager to go to war in 2006. In spite of its rhetoric, this time Israel was not.
Another feature of this latest clash that instigated a circus of political posturing in Lebanon, Israel and the United States was the fact that the army, rather than Hizballah, was the party engaging the Israelis. In all three countries, the issue of arming the Lebanese military was a topic for discussion. In Beirut, Hizballah’s opponents in the Lebanese government hailed the clash as living proof of the ability of the Lebanese army to defend the country and called for a campaign to better equip and arm the military. In a silly bid to start the campaign, the temperamental minister of defense, Elias al-Murr, and his father, a wealthy veteran politician, deposited half a million dollars into a newly established bank account for such a purpose.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government called on Washington to stop arming the Lebanese military. Unsurprisingly, several US congressmen complied and sought a review of US military aid to Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iran’s top supreme guide aid Ali Akbar Vilayati was in Beirut offering his country’s willingness to fill in the gap.
The fact remains that cutting US aid to the Lebanese army harms Israeli interests rather than serves them. Indeed, the 3 August incident was the exception rather than the rule of relations between Israel and the Lebanese army. Since Lebanon’s formal independence in 1943, US military aid has been significant only when the Lebanese army was an actual or potential ally to Israeli strategic aims and actions, from 1981 to 1984 at the height of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon and immediately after the July 2006 war. Even then, the amounts were meager — $138 million in the 1980s and $220 in 2007 — and excluded any weapons necessary to defend Lebanese territory. Rather, the funds boosted the army’s internal security readiness that can be used against resistance forces or for the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camps. A cut in this aid will only hurt petty beneficiaries in the army ranks and diminish the army’s ability to control radical elements inside Lebanon rather than face Israel.
The perception that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) colludes with Israel was reinforced by the 3 August incident. In the days that followed the tree incident, the Israelis quietly — and without any Lebanese response or much media reporting — cut, and with the consent and cooperation of the UN forces stationed there, not one but three trees. Over the past few months relations between UNIFIL and local villagers have deteriorated precipitously. Currently under French command, UNIFIL has clashed with villagers on several occasions as they conducted more intrusive and uncoordinated missions within these villages to enforce their mandate of ensuring that there is no “non-state armed presence” south of the Litani River. While this is indeed part of their mandate as defined by UN Security Council resolution 1701 that outlines the terms of ceasefire following the July 2006 war, UNIFIL’s rules of engagement also stipulated that they were to coordinate their moves with the Lebanese government, something they have increasingly avoided or complained about.
In effect, the heavy presence of the Lebanese army and that of UNIFIL in southern Lebanon are two sides of the same coin: a last-resort strategy by Israel to drain and weaken Hizballah in every possible indirect way after the most direct one — outright total war — failed to crush the movement in 2006. The heavier the non-Hizballah military presence, the more eyes and ears and bodies there are to disrupt the “sea” of people where the “fish” of the resistance survive and grow. Hizballah’s official position has remained supportive and encouraging of the Lebanese army presence and lukewarmly tolerant of the international one.
The real threat to its power, Hizballah’s cadres declare, lies elsewhere. First, in the open spy war whose extent and impact continues to unravel daily in Lebanon. Second, in the ramifications of decisions by the international Hariri tribunal expected to implicate high-ranking members of Hizballah’s military wing in the 2005 assassination.
By any standards of espionage, the extent of the spy war and its unraveling is of staggering proportions. Dozens of alleged and convicted Israeli spies have been exposed and arrested in Lebanon in the past couple of years. International media would have been buzzing with stories about them had they been less than a handful but accused of spying for Syria or Iran or any of the usual “Axis of Evil” suspects. The reach and role of these spies is tremendous according to local media reports. They have managed to infiltrate the communications networks and the security apparatus of Lebanon at the highest levels. Both fields are essential to safeguarding the operations of the resistance. These fields are also the gateway to conducting clandestine operations in Lebanon such as assassinations or tampering with evidence pointing to perpetrators of such acts. It is this reality that links the spy war to the international tribunal that has prompted a public and diplomatic offensive by Hizballah lately in the form of a series of appearances by its leader Nasrallah.
The first volley of this offensive was largely focused on discrediting the international tribunal by showing the unreliability of any evidence it presented based on phone communications (now shown to be controlled and manipulated by spies) or false testimonies — now clearly the work of conspirators keen to manipulate public opinion to extract political prices from Syria or Hizballah. The credibility of these witnesses that formed the backbone of earlier reports by the tribunal pointing fingers at Syria is baseless. Key witnesses accusing Syria and its allies in the Lebanese security services have since then recanted their testimonies or were shown to be mercenaries receiving fat sums of money from political parties aligned with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister. Despite the exposure of these witnesses and the gravity of the consequences of their testimonies, the tribunal has refused to investigate who was behind concocting these false testimonials.
By focusing on the tribunal’s inaction in this matter, Nasrallah was attacking local rivals, namely the Hariri camp, which provided the political and possibly material cover for the witnesses. If Hizballah is going to be put on the hot seat by the tribunal, Nasrallah will put his opponents on a hotter seat domestically. If the false testimony file was about the tribunal’s questionable past, Nasrallah’s second volley was about the reliability of its future actions. Nasrallah presented video recordings showing Israeli spy planes tracking Hariri’s whereabouts and routes of transportation prior to the assassination. The findings were the result of Hizballah’s success in intercepting, in real-time, aerial streams of surveillance footage being broadcast from Israeli spy planes roaming Lebanese skies back to headquarters inside Israel. Nasrallah was clear that the footage was not a smoking gun but enough grounds for the tribunal or any investigative body to subpoena Israeli officials and investigate the possibility that Israel was behind Hariri’s killing. Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, filed a formal request with the Lebanese government to obtain all the material in Hizballah’s possession relating to this footage. Although Hizballah agreed to the request, it explicitly stated that it was only doing so in compliance with the Lebanese request and will only hand over the material to the Lebanese government. But the latter has so far acted as a mailman in this case, and the tribunal could easily serve as a conduit of all this material to the Israelis without committing to investigating them.
The tribunal’s report implicating Hizballah members in the Hariri assassination is expected in the fall. Hizballah’s pre-emptive attack on its credibility and its local cheerleaders has led to Syrian and Saudi efforts to seek a compromise. The Saudis might try to petition Washington so that the report is delayed until the spring. But anything short of a complete restructuring of the tribunal to eliminate the possibility of international manipulation or to neutralize its effects locally (which requires bringing down the current Lebanese “unity” government if it doesn’t continue to equivocate on the matter), may only put things on hold for a year or so. Without a complete takeover of the investigation by Lebanese authorities, as Hizballah has called for but so far not insisted on, the tribunal will remain a sleeping cell of international pressure activated at the opportune time to justify whatever larger aims, including new wars, the US administration and Israel have in store for the Middle East. By then, regional conditions — at least in the eyes of Washington and its Israeli and Arab allies — may seem ripe for another round of sowing “constructive chaos” from Tehran to Tel Aviv, and there will be no shortage of trees — of different roots and fruits — to cut.
Hicham Safieddine is a Toronto-based researcher and journalist.