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All Is Not Quiet on the Lebanese Front

Lebanese FrontOn Tuesday August 3, 2010 violence erupted along Lebanon’s southern frontier. Almost simultaneously verbal violence against Lebanon erupted from the U.S. House of Representatives. Soon thereafter Lebanon lost, at least temporarily, $100 million in U.S. military aid. What is this all about?

On the Lebanese Frontier

The Lebanese border, or so-called Blue Line, has been a Middle East flashpoint for decades. It has been the site of repeated wars, cross border skirmishes and often futile United Nations peacekeeping efforts to keep things below a boiling temperature. Israel says that south Lebanon has harbored Palestinian fighters in the past, and now Hezbollah fighters, all of whom endanger its security. At least publically, Israel never asks why there is such long lasting hostility toward it. And, if their leaders do so in private, it never impacts policy. Instead, Israel has consistently waged war on its neighbors to stop the vengeful incursions of those whose land Israel has...what? Gotten from God? Conquered from the Canaanites? Confiscated after chasing out Arab forces that identified them as European interlopers? Stolen?

The incident of August 3 was triggered by Israel’s attempt to cut down a tree along the Lebanese frontier. The IDF claims the tree was on the Israeli side of the frontier fence. Please note that the Israeli protest about this to the United Nations and the Lebanese government actually used the word "border." I mention this because, officially, Israel usually avoids acknowledging final borders. Anyway, the UN says that the unfortunate tree was in fact on the Israeli side. OK. If that is the case, someone on the Lebanese side made a deadly mistake. However, it might help our understanding of the situation to see the incident in context.

1. Speaking now of the post PLO era, we can say that Lebanese forces, including those of Hezbollah, rarely cross the border. The significant exception here was the cross border kidnapping and killing of several Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah in an effort to force Israel into a prisoner swap. This incident sparked the 2006 war.

2. The Israelis violate the Lebanese border almost constantly. Mainly this comes in the form of Israeli air force over flights. These are allegedly for reconnaissance purposes which somehow is suppose to make this violation of Lebanese territory acceptable. The UN peacekeeping force assigned to Lebanon has protested this sort of violation by Israel over and again to no avail.

3. Israel has taken it upon itself to seed the Lebanese side of the border with unexploded cluster bombs and spy devices. The spy devices keep an eye on Lebanese border roads and villages. Some of the spy mechanisms need clear fields of vision to record and send data and so, on occasion, the Israelis clear cut parts of the frontier area. That is what the Lebanese believed the Israelis were doing on August 3. The Lebanese claim that they fired warning shots and when the Israelis did not pull back, they directed "lethal fire" at them. One Israeli officer was killed and another seriously wounded. The Israeli response killed three Lebanese soldiers and a journalist.

4. The Israeli government has labeled the action an "ambush. They have demanded the punishment of the Lebanese officer who gave the order to shoot. If that does not happen they threaten to destroy all of the Lebanese army outposts along the frontier. The UN has encouraged a diplomatic approach. This is unlikely. Historically, it is not how the Israelis do things. They think of themselves as too strong to have to compromise. To put the case more broadly, for over sixty years they have been refusing do what is necessary to bring peace between themselves and their Arab neighbors. Instead, they are constantly expanding their territory by conquest, constantly practicing ethnic cleansing against the Arabs under their control. Then they get upset when the Lebanese on the frontier do not give them the benefit of the doubt, but rather assume that whatever the Israelis were doing to that innocent tree, it involved aggressive intent. Yet it is the Israelis themselves who have conditioned the Lebanese to look at things this way by the pattern of their past actions. If Jerusalem does not like this attitude on the part of its neighbors, they should try changing their behavior.

In the U.S. Congress

Even before this clash the Israelis were trying to deny Lebanon what little weaponry its army gets from abroad. They have lodged protests with Washington and Paris, where a good part of the aid comes from. This campaign against Lebanon was proceeding quietly until August 3 when the rule of silence fell away, particularly amongst Israel’s allies in the U.S. Congress.

1. Within a week of fighting Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that he had exercised his "legislative prerogative to place a suspension" on $100 million of aide to the Lebanese army. Berman said he suspected Hezbollah involvement in the August 3 incident because the Lebanese officer who ordered the shooting was a Shi’ite and known to "hang out" with members of Hezbollah. On the basis of this Berman wants the U.S. to investigate the level of influence Hezbollah exerts on the entire Lebanese Army.

2. A comment from a Democratic Party aide on Capital Hill, "One of the purposes of aid to Lebanon is to professionalize its military so incidents like this do not happen." Response from Lebanese Minister of Defense, Elias Murr (see legislative prerogative link above), "those who want to help the army on condition that it doesn’t protect its territory, people and border from Israel, should keep their money...." Response of State Department Spokesman Philip Crowley, the Lebanese military should understand that "nothing that we do is condition free. We place conditions on how our military aid is delivered, and there are similar conditions in terms of how Israel is able to use the assistance we provide them." Really! Well, maybe in theory. But in practice, I am afraid Mr. Crowley is woefully misinformed on this last point.

3. Finally, the Democratic aide sited above, who works with the Foreign Affairs Committee, asked "how high up does it go [who gave the command to fire?] Are the Lebanese soldiers going to be reprimanded? If soldiers were out of line, that’s one thing. If it comes from the top, that’s another." Thinking back to the numerous crimes of George Bush Jr. and his cohort--to Abu Ghraib and the policy of extraordinary rendition–and the fact that such questions were assiduously avoided–one must conclude that hypocrisy is alive and well in Washington.

What does it all mean?

1. About the Middle East – Things are indeed changing. Israel is finding it harder to push its neighbors around. With the possible exceptions of Abbas and the West Bank, Israel can no longer assume that they can kill and maim with impunity. This must be frustrating for Netanyahu, Lieberman, and et. al., bound as they are to a machismo culture and a "never again" world view wherein new variants on the Nazis are seen lurking around ever corner. No one, including President Obama, can guarantee rational responses from the Israeli government. It is a dangerous situation.

2. About Washington – In terms of the Congress almost nothing has changed. When it comes to Middle East foreign policy, men like Berman and Klein and many others too, still stand in as agents of a foreign power. And they do so in an obvious knee-jerk fashion. I am afraid it will stay this way until Israeli behavior becomes a voting issue in the U.S. for more than just Zionist Americans.

3. And For The Rest Of Us – We walk a line between periodic instability and region-wide war. Either way there may well be more 9/11s in our future. What will it take to make ordinary Americans, of whatever religious denomination, grasp the danger of allowing their Middle East policy to be made by a special interest that has no regard for either the well being of individual citizens or the national interest? Now that is a seminal question.

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