Restraint, not retaliation, after Israeli fatality on Lebanon border

UN peacekeepers are talking to military representatives on both sides of the border after the first fatality in three years. 

Karamallah Daher/REUTERS
United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrol in their armored vehicles in the town of Naqoura, in southern Lebanon near the border between Lebanon and Israel December 16, 2013.

Testing assumptions behind the headlines

The killing of Israeli soldier Shlomi Cohen by a Lebanese soldier along the border last night marks the first such fatality in three years. But while tensions have risen in recent months, both sides have an interest in preventing broader conflict and are likely to exercise restraint.

Liaisons from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces are cooperating with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and will meet today with the body, which has monitored the border since the end of hostilities after the 2006 war.

That war was sparked by another cross-border incident when Hezbollah fighters kidnapped two Israeli soldiers. Israel retaliated with a punishing month-long campaign, and has credited the deterrence effect of that war for the relative quiet along the border since then.

It’s not that Hezbollah isn’t militarily ready for another war; by all accounts, it has more than rebuilt its weapons stockpiles, including tens of thousands of missiles. It also has begun openly operating training camps in southern Lebanon, one of which covers 7 square miles, the Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford reported this month.

But the Shiite movement has gotten involved with the Syrian civil war, fighting against the Sunni rebels, and appears reluctant to open a second front against Israel. The group has yet to launch any large-scale attacks on Israel, despite apparent provocations, including several air strikes on Syrian weapons depots suspected of preparing shipments to Hezbollah. It also blamed Israel for the recent assassination of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut. 

However, Hezbollah took responsibility for a bombing that wounded four Israeli soldiers patrolling a quarter of a mile inside Lebanese territory in August – a reminder of the sensitivity of the border and the potential for inflammatory attacks, especially if regional dynamics begin to shift.

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