Israel-Lebanon border clash has Israel complaining of Hezbollah's influence
The Israel-Lebanon border clash that left an Israeli officer and three Lebanese dead this week has spurred Israeli complaints about ties between the Lebanese Army and the militant Shiite group Hezbollah. The Obama administration may face a congressional challenge to a US military aid program for Lebanon.
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Since Tuesday’s border clash that left an Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers, and a Lebanese journalist dead, Israel has complained of an alleged “Hezbollah-ization” of the Lebanese Army, a reference to the militant Iran-backed Shiite group, and appears set to lobby Congress to curtail Washington’s military assistance program to Lebanon.
“Israel tends to view the distinction between the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah as increasingly cloudy,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, in a conference call with two Jewish lobby groups on Wednesday. “The Lebanese Army shares all its intelligence with Hezbollah. There are high-ranking officers in the Lebanese Army who are closely associated with Hezbollah.”
Many analysts in Lebanon say Israeli claims of Hezbollah’s influence over the Lebanese Army are overstated.
“In a way, the Israelis are shooting themselves in the foot with their criticism of the Lebanese Army,” says Timur Goksel, a university lecturer in Beirut and former official with the UNIFIL peacekeeping force in south Lebanon. “They had been saying for years that they want the Lebanese Army to deploy along the border [to replace Hezbollah] and now [that they have]... they are saying they’re terrorists.”
Lebanese troops to southern border in 2006
Around 8,000 Lebanese troops fanned out in the southern border district in 2006, after an effective absence of three decades, to help maintain the cessation of hostilities with UNIFIL’s help following the devastating Israel-Hezbollah war in July of that year.
Hezbollah is the most powerful political and military entity in Lebanon, and its influence over the years has seeped into state institutions. But gauging the Shiite group’s level of sway within the Lebanese Army is hard to quantify, although there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that it exists.
According to Aram Nerguizian, a defense and security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the 58,000-strong Army is roughly one-third Shiite and one-third Sunni, with the latter having an estimated 4,000 more soldiers than the former. The remaining third is composed of Christians and Druze. Many Shiites within the Army have a natural sympathy for their co-religionists in Hezbollah, reflecting a bond between the two institutions that is subtle, finely-balanced, and sometimes ambiguous.
“It’s a discreet sort of relationship,” Goksel says. “I don’t think there’s much low-level contact among the guys on the ground. It’s mainly at a higher level. The real cooperation is on the intelligence-sharing level, dealing with counterespionage rather than tactical military intelligence.”