How recent national politics in Lebanon and Israel intensify the conflict at the Blue Line
BY EMMA KÜHNELT
“If … an escalation or conflict develops here, we will return Lebanon to the Stone Age” said Israel’s Minister of Defence, Yoav Gallant, in a video-statement on August 8, 2023. The statement was made in response to recent manoeuvres of Iran-backed terrorist organisation Hezbollah at the Blue Line dividing Israel and Lebanon. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah responded to this using the same rhetoric in a video-message on August 14: “[Israel] may be able to send a country here and there back to the Stone Age, but if the fighting expands to the entire resistance axis, nothing will be left of Israel."
The Israel-Lebanon border conflict has existed since 1947; the two countries have been at war since the founding of Israel in 1948. There have been two major wars already alongside ongoing confrontations of Hezbollah and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) at the Blue Line. The border was set up and has been managed by UN peace-keeping forces UNIFIL since 1978. In light of this already tense situation, members of both sides alongside international commentators fear that further escalation along the Blue Line is possible. Because this conflict has been going on for so long and is related to further conflicts in the area, there are many more facets and influences that I will have to leave out of this article.
Since June, two major incidents directly at the Blue Line fuelled tension and provocation on both sides. To begin with the Israeli side, the erection of a fence around the Arab-Israeli village of Ghajar breached UN-Resolution 1701 and provoked Hezbollah. The village of Ghajar was divided by the Blue Line in 2000. After withdrawing IDF presence in 2022, Israeli authorities have now built a fence around the whole village, to protect inhabitants. "Israel is obliged to withdraw from the northern part of the village of Ghajar," UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said.
On the Lebanese side, Hezbollah erected two tents, also breaching UN agreements, outside of Lebanese territory. One tent was taken down, the other one remains. Furthermore, Hezbollah fighters showed presence on Blue-Line buffer-zone territory and, as they say in response to the erection of the fence, fired near Ghajar, which lead to Israeli shelling in response.
Hezbollah’s recent provocations at the Blue Line are a tactical political signal to national Lebanese politics, according to Prof Lina Khatib, director of the SOAS Middle East Institute in London. The country is facing economic and political crisis due to the continuing damage of the explosion in the port of Beirut in 2020 and the ever-increasing inflation. After last year’s elections pro- against anti-Hezbollah groups battle for the top hand in a political vacuum with a President yet to be announced. Next to the Shiite and Iran-backed Hezbollah group are the Christian Lebanese Forces and Sunni groupings. Both Sunnis and Christians heavily criticise Hezbollah for its extensive possession and use of weapons. They demand Hezbollah hand over their arms to Lebanese state authority to increase internal security. Hezbollah rejects these demands. However, in a recent accident of a Hezbollah car in Kahaleh, an inhabitant of the village and a Hezbollah member were killed. Although Hezbollah denied it in this instance, there are accusations that it indirectly fuels fights between Palestinian militant groups in the Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp in South Lebanon.
On the other side, Israel’s national politics are being shaped by protests against the government and its planned judicial reform. Amongst others, IDF general Halevi warned that this tumultuous situation endangered the country’s security after more than 10,000 army reservists announced to deny service in case of a judicial overhaul. Hezbollah seem to have interpreted the situation in their favour, stating that the planned reform and protests weakened Israel. However, this is a dangerous interpretation of events and overestimation by Hezbollah, warned Israeli premier Netanyahu. In case of further escalations at the Blue Line, all Israelis, protesting or not alike, would have to carry the consequences of another war with Lebanon.
Considering these two national political backgrounds, the question of whether the conflict will escalate further this time remains unclear. On the Lebanese side, Hezbollah might see further provocations as a tool to signal strength and persistence to national politics. However, deep economic crisis, the precarious situation of many Lebanese and the growing opposition by the Sunni and Christian groups might be of priority, forcing Hezbollah to stronger concentrate on these matters. Given the divided political situation on the Israeli side, an escalation at the Blue Line will be harmful to all. Premier Netanyahu, formerly known as the “security premier” has every interest not to risk the country’s security; especially now with the army’s lacking support. Also the protesters, fearing the decay of a democratic Israel, want to avoid war at all costs. Nevertheless, as the “Stone Age”- rhetoric has shown, both sides are tensed and further provocations or military moves can speedily ignite escalation.
Image: Flickr/ Israel Defence Forces