Monday, February 26, 2007

Lebanese Army Standing Up to Israel:

Stronger stance may be an attempt to regain support for the Lebanese government.

By Liam Bailey

Since the Second Lebanon war --as it is called in Israel-- between Israel and Shiite Hezbollah militia based in South Lebanon in 2006 there has been relative calm in border areas. In the last week a series of events has heightened tensions between forces on both sides of the border. This time the Lebanon army is facing off against Israeli forces, not Hezbollah.

Dec. 24 saw a tense stand-off between Israeli forces and the Lebanese army. The National News Agency reported that Lebanese infantry soldiers were on a routine border patrol, when they were surprised by an Israeli patrol on the other side of the barbed wire fence. Some of the Israeli soldiers were pointing their weapons at the Lebanese and the Lebanese army mobilized troops ready to deal with any ensuing military action. The Israeli soldiers withdrew to the Israeli settlement of Mutilla and Spanish troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon took over the patrol, with three bulldozers to prevent any ensuing clashes. Under the UN brokered Resolution 1701, which brought the ceasefire that ended the summer conflict, the Lebanese army and UNIFIL were designated to patrol the border.

Just two days before the ground forces incident at the border. Lebanese anti-aircraft guns fired on Israeli warplanes as they flew low altitude reconnaissance missions over South Lebanon Dec. 22. Israeli jets have been flying such missions over Lebanon for years, but this is the first time the Lebanon army has opened fire. In the recent war, between Israel and Hezbollah, Israeli warplanes flew thousands of combat missions, inflicting heavy civilian casualties. The Lebanese army remained neutral. UN Resolution 1701 reiterated the UN's support for Lebanon's territorial integrity and sovereignty. The resolution has not stopped the flyovers, which have continued, without response from the Lebanese army, since the war ended.

Earlier this month Lebanese and Israeli troops exchanged fire. According to The Israeli Defence Forces [IDF] were combing for mines between the Israeli fences and the Lebanon border. Lebanese troops, who accuse the IDF of crossing the border, fired shots into the air. The IDF warned that they would respond if the shots continued, when their warning wasn't heeded the IDF fired two tank shells in the direction of the gunfire. No injuries were reported.

Throughout the summer war, the Lebanese military had remained neutral and the government seemed reluctant for them to fight Israeli forces. The Lebanese army acting now in this way, to me, signifies an attempt by the Lebanese government to counter Hezbollah's growing support and influence in South Lebanon.

Hezbollah started out as a militia in 1985 and its main objective was to force an end to the [first] Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. Since then Hezbollah has evolved into a hybrid political movement/militia with popular support from Lebanon's predominant Shia population. Hezbollah is heavily armed and massively funded by Iran and Syria and had 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament, before the Nov. resignations.

Hezbollah's support increased during the July war as it is called in Lebanon the population grew angry at what seemed like indiscriminate killing of Lebanese civilians by the Israeli forces, and at the government for not ordering the army to take action. Hezbollah held its own in many gun battles with Israeli forces building acclaim for the group. The people who believed Hezbollah were responsible for starting the war were angry with the group for prolonging the conflict.

When the war ended Hezbollah were credited with a victory because, although heavily outmanned and outgunned they maintained fierce resistance until international pressure forced Israel to withdraw. The so called victory increased Hezbollah's support even further at a time when government popularity was dwindling.

Hezbollah attempted to capitalize on the situation, demanding a unity government late Oct.-early Nov., which would have given the group veto power in government decisions. When a deal was not reached five Hezbollah and AMAL members resigned Nov. 12, bringing fears over whether the government could continue. Eight members would have to resign before the government could be considered dissolved, but it was feared that without sufficient representation of the majority Shia community the government would struggle.

Hezbollah planned a protest to ratchet up the pressure on the government but it was postponed when Christian and anti-Syria (Hezbollah's ally) industry minister Pierre Geymal was assassinated Nov 21. Some blamed Syria for the attack because their operatives had been deemed responsible by a UN investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al Hariri. This also means Hezbollah could have carried out the attack, because both shared the aim of further undermining the government. Conspiracy theorists blamed Israel for the attack to foment sectarian tensions, which it did excellently, whoever was responsible.

The planned Hezbollah protest went ahead Dec 1, their leader Hassan Nasrallah released a statement:

"We appeal to all Lebanese, from every region and political movement, to take part in a peaceful and civilized demonstration on Friday to rid us of an incapable government that has failed in its mission."

800, 000 Hezbollah supporters and those supporting other opposition groups, did as he said, and took to the streets in a protest sit-in surrounding the government offices and other areas in central Beirut. The Army cordoned off the government offices and protesters planned to keep up the blockade until the government resigned. According to a senior opposition source a dialogue between Arab diplomats and opposition leaders was successful in easing the blockade and ending the protest.

An undercurrent of sectarian tension remained as well as a strong lack of faith in the government, and doubts over its survival. Then and currently the Lebanese government is under tremendous pressure, pressure that Hezbollah is keen to maintain. Therefore, the recent actions of the Lebanese army acting against the IDF and Israeli jets, when they failed to act against the Israeli onslaught in the summer, can easily be viewed as an attempt by the Lebanese government to regain the faith of their people.

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