Tensions on the Rise at the Southern Lebanese Border

Picture taken on southeastern border of Lebanon in 2015 by Hussein Malla.

“Hezbollah and Lebanon bear full responsibility for this incident and any attack from Lebanese territory against Israel,” exclaimed Prime Minister (PM) Benjamin Netanyahu in a televised address in response to the events that took place in the disputed Shebaa farms region on the 27th of July, 2020. He doubled down on his stance by stating that “Hezbollah should know it is playing with fire.” Netanyahu’s address came shortly after a statement released by Hezbollah that claimed that “there has been no clash or shooting on its part in the events of the day until now. Rather, it was only one party, which was the fearful, anxious, and tense enemy.” Despite the two opposing perspectives, something did indeed happen on Monday and it is necessary to highlight all the variables that came into play. 

The Shebaa Farms area is currently occupied by Israel, yet it still lies in Lebanese territory. However, according to the United Nations, the land is regarded as Syrian land that was captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War. Tensions have always been high in this disputed region, so conflict is not something new; however, each incident may come as a product of differing incentives. For example, back in September, the two sides exchanged fire because Hezbollah targeted an Israeli base and vehicles stationed near the border, in response to a prior drone attack from Israel. Many believed that the events on the 27th of July were in response to the killing of Ali Kamel Mohsen, a Hezbollah fighter in Syria, but after denying participation in the conflict, Hezbollah was clear in stating that the response to this fighter’s death was “definitely coming.” This comes as a product of Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah vowing to avenge the death of any Hezbollah fighter in Syria following the killings of two fighters last August. While the group may deny taking part in Monday’s clash, Reuters reported that a Lebanese source claimed that  “Hezbollah fired a guided missile at an Israeli tank,” yet Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, spokesmen for the Israeli military, claimed to be unaware of such an act. Nevertheless, Netanyahu remains adamant that Israeli territory was invaded and that Sayyed Hassan Nassrallah should not “repeat this mistake.” One might note the absurdity in Israel’s seemingly high regard for sovereignty, when in fact it continues to violate Lebanese airspace time and time again, along with its ongoing annexation of the West Bank. This is also on top of their already illegal occupation of Palestine and complete disregard for Palestinian sovereignty and self-determination, in addition to international law. The events of July 27th came less than a week after an Israeli drone crashed in Southern Lebanon, an example of an event that has occurred multiple times. Armed Israeli aircrafts crossing into Lebanese borders is a direct violation of Security Council Resolution 1701, yet it is no surprise that the United Nations often fails to carry out legitimate change. 

There is a certain degree of blame that should fall on UNIFIL and their inability to properly control the border between the two countries. “Maximum restraint” seems to be the main slogan that has been echoed throughout the years, and as it stands, the only side being “restrained” seems to be UNIFIL itself. On the day of the conflict, the UNIFIL spokesperson for peacekeeping in Southern Lebanon and its commander were said to be in “contact with both parties to assess the situation and decrease the tension.” According to the UNIFIL mission’s website, Spanish peacekeepers conduct “about 300 weekly coordinated patrols along the Blue Line to ensure that no hostile activities take place.” There continue to be cases of the Israeli army shooting unarmed shepherds who are accused of crossing the designated Blue Line, yet no accountability has been placed on the aggressor. UNIFIL has shied away from mitigating conflicts, especially when it arises from the Israeli side. The group has definitely played a role in maintaining a degree of peace and stability along with providing jobs for locals, but with a large annual budget, the expectations must be far higher than what is actually happening. For the year of 2018-2019, the group was given  a budget of $474.41 million. Moreover, UNIFIL is composed of “45 troop contributing countries,” whereby the Spanish contingent alone has over 600 peacekeeping troops. A substantial amount of resources are being spent every year with very little positive results yielded. 

By denying participation and vowing to act soon, Hezbollah is evidently leaning towards some degree of psychological battle tactics and political theatre. By doing so, the group is seemingly trying to keep Israel on edge. Amidst a worsening Lebanese economy and increased US sanctions, it  seems as though  Hezbollah is trying to reinstate themselves as a powerful political player, and if it means leaning onto the crux of keeping the enemy worried, then they will choose to do so. For so long, the group’s personal politics has put Lebanon at risk, especially in the realm of international relations, and its personal agenda should not dictate the security of the country. To act in self-defense against a non-state actor, “within the territory of a non-consenting state,” is a violation of said country’s sovereignty. This is what opens up Article 51 of the United Nations Charter to controversy, as it is difficult to decide whether a country must be held accountable for the actions of a group acting within its borders. Nevertheless, Israel has made it clear that it would not see a discrepancy between Lebanon and Hezbollah should it be attacked. With that in mind, the United Nations has often been unable to hold countries accountable for operating outside the framework of international law, even when it comes to legally binding documents. The unfortunate reality is that Hezbollah’s personal politics and intentions often take precedence over that of Lebanon, a significant area of concern that has been raised in many of the Lebanese protests since the October Revolution of 2019. Lebanon should not fall victim to the consequences that this group’s actions may bring, but the fact of the matter is that it might be a while before this becomes a reality. By adopting the image of being Lebanon’s protector, Hezbollah leans on the use of soft power and military power in hopes that it can sway the image that its opposers may have of it, without recognizing that continuing to orchestrate such stunts would have a detrimental effect on both its image and stability. 

Both Israel and Hezbollah are currently struggling with their own myriad of problems. Lebanon is suffering from an unprecedented economic collapse, where power outages and food shortages have become common. Moreover, the political sanctions from the U.S. have weakened Hezbollah. Israel, however, has seen a surge in unemployment rates, and Netanyahu’s popularity has been decreasing gradually as protests against the Israeli leader continue to grow. Therefore, the PM is unlikely to drag his country to war due to the implications such an action may have. Nevertheless, tensions are high. While the events of July 27th may not necessarily set off a chain reaction of worse events to come, it has definitely made matters worse and more volatile. The threats issued from Israel’s side to hold Lebanon and Hezbollah responsible for any attack, and Hezbollah reducing the incident to a “false victory” and promising to take proper action soon is quite compelling. While the incident may resemble a ‘he said, she said’ situation,  blame can easily be separated across the board. Every involved party, including UNIFIL, must receive some degree of the blame for the July 27th event, prior incidents, and likely incidents to come. Following the dismal reality that 2020 has been, it is evident that what is to come may be detrimental. We are fighting a pandemic and a deteriorating economy, so the last thing we need is to fight a war. 

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