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.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
A Lebanese soldier stands near a checkpoint that was hit on Tuesday in the exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese troops, in the southern border village of Adaisseh, Lebanon, Aug. 4. A cypress tree at the center of the most serious clash along the Lebanon-Israel border since 2006 was in Israeli territory, the UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon said Wednesday, contradicting Lebanese claims that Israel violated the frontier.

A deadly clash this week along the Lebanon-Israel border has thrown into doubt future US government funding for the Lebanese Army, a cornerstone of recent US efforts to stabilize the country.

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.”

Hezbollah's military role

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.

“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.”

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