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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The Army command accepts that the Lebanese government formally sanctions Hezbollah’s status as a “resistance” force to deter possible Israeli aggression against Lebanon – a role that would normally fall to a national army. At the same time, Hezbollah is careful to accord the Lebanese Army due respect. Its leaders often say that the Army and Hezbollah play a collaborative role in safeguarding the nation.Skip to next paragraph
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“Within one strategy, these two complement each other,” Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, said in a 2004 speech on Hezbollah’s proposed defense strategy for Lebanon. “They cooperate and share the roles in forming a fence around the homeland.”
The US launched an expanded military assistance program for the Lebanese Army in 2006, when Lebanon was profoundly split between a Western-backed government and the Hezbollah-led parliamentary opposition. The US hoped that bolstering the capabilities of the Army would lead to tightened border control to prevent arms smuggling, improve counter-terrorism capabilities, and strengthen the Lebanese state at Hezbollah’s expense.
According to the latest Arab-Israel Military Balance report, released in June by CSIS, the US government has allocated some $525 million in military assistance to Lebanon since 2006, the highest per capita figure to a Middle East country after Israel.
The assistance mainly includes training and the transfer of equipment such as transport vehicles, communications, and ammunition for existing systems. Washington heeded Israeli concerns by ensuring that no advanced weapons, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems, were handed over that could challenge Israel's military superiority.
Hezbollah's political gains
But the division that sharply defined Lebanese politics four years ago has blurred lately, with former political rivals making up and working together in a coalition government in which Hezbollah has unrivaled influence. Furthermore, the Lebanese and US have differing perceptions over the nature of the threats confronting Lebanon.
While they share a mutual hostility toward Al Qaeda-style groups, Lebanon maintains that its principal enemy is Israel. The US, on the other hand, views Hezbollah and the influence of Iran and neighboring Syria over Lebanese affairs as the biggest obstacles to a Western-friendly and stable Lebanon. Israel and some members of Congress, which has oversight on the allocation of funds to the Lebanese Army, have grown increasingly unhappy with the military assistance program, analysts say.
Tuesday’s deadly gun battle on the border between Lebanese and Israeli troops has brought “all these issues to the surface,” says Nerguizian, the defense analyst who co-authored the CSIS report.
“At the congressional level, pressure was already building to limit the amount of assistance,” Nerguizian says. “There was pessimism going into the summer that the funding levels could be slashed anyway; now we’re wondering if they will be slashed altogether.”
The US government is keeping tight-lipped for now on possible cuts in the program. State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said on Thursday that improving the "capability and performance" of the Lebanese government and the security sector "contributes to stability in the region and is in our interest.”
But there are doubts in Lebanon that the Obama administration will continue high levels of funding if Congress chooses to oppose it, especially with midterm elections looming. Ali Osseiran, a Shiite parliamentarian, told Lebanon’s Central News Agency Friday that Congress was controlled by the “Zionist lobby which receives its orders from Tel Aviv.”