Israel, Lebanon, and the Middle East conflict
Israel and Lebanon have more pressing concerns than war with each other, but bickering could escalate to incite war if the US and Europe don't help.
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But the danger of heightened rhetoric and a military buildup is that small incidents along the border could spiral out of control. In recent months, there have been two instances of rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon (which were blamed on Al Qaeda-linked groups) and two weapons cache explosions.Skip to next paragraph
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On July 14, an explosion destroyed a building in the southern Lebanese town of Khirbet Silim. United Nations peacekeepers blamed it on a Hezbollah weapons depot that accidentally blew up. A few days later, when UN troops tried to search houses in the town, they were surrounded by hundreds of villagers who pelted them with rocks and forced them to withdraw.
Under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war, UN forces are supposed to intercept illegal weapons shipments and raid storage sites south of the Litani River. They have rarely done so. While Hezbollah continues its arms buildup, Israel has also violated Resolution 1701 by frequently flying into Lebanese airspace and by planting surveillance devices on Lebanese territory.
When Lebanon's 15-year civil war ended in 1990, the country's militias were disarmed. But Hezbollah was allowed to keep its weapons as a "national resistance" against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in May 2000.
After the Israelis withdrew, many Lebanese asked why the group did not become a strictly political movement. Hezbollah insisted that its military mission of resistance was not over because Israel was still occupying a strip of land along the border called Shebaa Farms.
While Hezbollah has shown a willingness to adapt and evolve politically, it is unlikely that the movement would give up its weapons – or the idea of perpetual resistance – without a political settlement between the West and Hezbollah's main patron, Iran.
The Obama administration can avert a new conflict by keeping its attention focused on Lebanon, continuing to support Hariri's government, and helping to strengthen state institutions like the Lebanese Army. But US officials must eventually reach out to Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by the State Department. Washington could begin indirect outreach through France and other Western countries that maintain contact with Hezbollah.
The administration must also press Israel not to overreact to future incidents along the Lebanese border, which could lead to war. And US officials should leverage their influence with Hezbollah's other major backer, Syria, which is trying to improve its relations with Washington.
None of this will be easy. For now, Hariri's government will depend on the US and Europe to protect it from Israel – and from Hezbollah.
In the absence of a strong central state, Lebanon will remain the victim of proxy battles and foreign intervention.