MESS Report / A Solitary but Potentially Combustible Incident on Northern Border

The question now is: are Israel and Lebanon able to lower tensions and prevent an eruption into full-scale conflict in the days ahead?

The incident on the Lebanese border next to Misgav Am on Tuesday afternoon was the most serious border incident of its kind for several years now. So far we are talking about a solitary incident, although one with serious potential ramifications. The main question now is if Israel and Lebanon are able to lower tensions and prevent a serious eruption in the days ahead.

Lebanese soldiers and UN peacekeepers at the border

According to the first reports from Lebanon, the confrontation broke out around an enclave. These are areas that are between the "Blue Line" (the international border) and the border security fence, which, according to international law, is located on the Israeli side of the border. Since the end of the Second Lebanon War, the IDF has changed its policy toward the enclaves, and it insists on maintaining a presence there, in order to exercise Israeli sovereignty there.

Entering an enclave is a military operation in every way, meaning that it takes place with the approval and supervision of high ranking officers. Although UNIFIL, and to some extent the government of Lebanon, acknowledge in principle Israeli control over the enclaves, these operations increase the friction between the two sides, and sometimes lead to tensions. In these cases, there is always the danger that an altercation will break out over which side of the border the IDF forces are located, since each state has a different interpretation of the exact location of the border.

In 2007 there was a similar incident surrounding the entrance to an enclave, and in the end the IDF caused damage to a Lebanese armored personnel carrier. In the last few months, there has been increasing friction between the Lebanese army and the IDF over the entire length of the border, as the Lebanese forces – especially Division 9, most of whose commanders are Shiite Muslim – take an aggressive stance against what they are calling Israeli provocations. On the other hand, the fact that we're talking about an incident with the Lebanese army and not with the militia Hezbollah, which operates in southern Lebanon, is likely to help calm tensions, because the government in Beirut has no interest in a confrontation with Israel.

The problem is that in this crisis there is a third party, Hezbollah, that has found itself in trouble over the last few weeks, as they are expecting to receive arrest warrants for some of its leaders surrounding the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon Rafik Hariri. If the head of the militia, Hassan Nasrallah, decides to add fuel to the fire, it will be a lot more difficult to extinguish.

On Tuesday afternoon, the IDF Northern Command has speculated that Hezbollah had a hand in the border conflict. According to speculations, Hezbollah used its allies within the Lebanese army to spark a confrontation.

Up until this week, despite the Gaza flotilla incident, this has been the quietest summer with respect to Israel's security in many years. As of now, no connections can be made between the Katyushas launched at Eilat and Aqaba on Monday with the incidents on the northern border on Tuesday. However, the accumulation of these incidents (complemented by the Katyusha on Ashkelon and the Qassam on Sderot over the weekend) raises the tension level on the regional barometer. It will take effort on the part of all sides, especially the American government, to prevent tensions from escalating further.