Politics of brinkmanship
The flare-up on the Israeli-Lebanese border cannot be divorced from mounting regional tension, writes Amira Howeidy
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Lebanese soldiers clear debris at a damaged checkpoint after an exchange of fire between Israeli and Lebanese troops along the border in the southern village of Adeisseh
If both Lebanon and Israel appear to be recovering from the border clash that took place on Tuesday, the tense atmosphere is likely to remain.
In an increasingly volatile region, the timing and dynamic of the unexpected flare up gave rise to many hours of live TV coverage as analysts grappled with the wider implications of the sudden clash in which three Lebanese soldiers were killed and three injured. A journalist from the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar was also killed, while another from Hizbullah's Al-Manar TV station was injured. On the Israeli side, a lieutenant colonel was killed and three soldiers injured.
While a consensus appeared among pundits that this was not a precursor to the war so many fear is inevitable, the incident was viewed as a balloon test on the road to that war, not least because it came in the wake of the series of potentially explosive political developments which peaked last week. On 29 July the Arab League supported the US-Israeli decision to resume direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians which were halted following Israel's 22-day war on Gaza in December 2008.
Last April the Obama administration pushed for proximity talks between Israel and the Palestinians that would last for four months. The plan was to resume talks directly only if the proximity talks succeeded. Despite the fact that all parties involved in the talks, including US special envoy to the region George Mitchell, conceded that the process had failed, Washington began pushing for face-to-face negotiations early last month, following Israeli premier Binyamin Netanyahu's visit to the US.
Faced with a fragile coalition government on the brink of collapse, Netanyahu needed the talks to improve his domestic prospects. Dragged into direct negotiations under intense US pressure, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will soon face the consequences of a doomed round of talks which could, some observers suggest, end his political career.
Abbas, so often applauded by the West as a "moderate" leader for his flexibility in negotiations, is now about to enter talks that might give away what little remains of Palestine and Palestinian rights to their land. The backdrop to the negotiations that Washington has promoted so assiduously includes a 740km long Israeli wall that cuts through the West Bank and annexes 50 per cent of occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), thousands of illegal Israeli settlements stretched across the OPT and an almost complete annexation of East Jerusalem, the proposed capital of the promised Palestinian state.
During a political rally held on Monday Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal accused the "Arabs" of offering "cover" for what he described as "illegitimate talks". On the same day Meshaal delivered his fiery speech, five rockets -- four Katyouchas and one Grad -- landed in the Jordanian port of Aqaba and Israeli port of Eilat. A Jordanian was killed and five injured in Aqaba. No casualties were reported on the Israeli side. It was the second rocket attack in four months.
Egyptian security forces searched the region around Taba, one possible source of the rocket fire, and found remains of a Grad rocket. On Wednesday an Egyptian source told the Egyptian official news agency MENA that "preliminary information that the security has found indicates that the Palestinian factions from the Gaza Strip are behind the operation". The previous day Israel accused Hamas "elements" of entering Egypt via underground tunnels from Gaza.
When, shortly after the missiles were fired, the Israeli and Lebanese army engaged in a shoot out, the connection, even if indirect, seemed relevant. Tension has been building on the Israeli-Lebanese front for months, exacerbated most recently by Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's revelation that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, probing the 2005 assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, which originally accused Syria of killing him, now intended to indict members of Hizbullah in what Nasrallah proclaimed a "dangerous plot targeting the resistance".
The development prompted Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to make a rare joint visit to Beirut on 30 July in an effort to prevent escalation. Two days later the Syrian president warned during a Damascus rally that "the possibility of war is increasing".
While Lebanon and Israel contest the circumstances of Tuesday's border skirmish, it appears that the Lebanese army, which has never engaged in military combat with Israel, was on high alert in Adeisseh, where the conflict took place. Considered a "disputed" area by Israel, Adeisseh is one of several posts on what is dubbed the "technical border" because while they are clearly inside Lebanon, Israel does not recognise them as such. The clash began when an Israeli unit approached this disputed area at 11:30am to cut a tree beyond the border fence and install a camera.
In response, the Lebanese army asked the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to stop the operation because it was taking place inside Lebanese territory. UNIFIL attempted to contain the situation but Israel went ahead with camera installation anyway. The Lebanese side then fired warning shots to which Israel responded by firing missiles from several tanks, followed by an immediate air raid targeting Lebanese military posts in the region. Israel filed a complaint against Lebanon with the UN accusing the Lebanese army of "ambushing" the Israeli unit.
In Lebanon a sense of pride that the army was finally in the trenches with the resistance was mixed with apprehension. In a lengthy speech on Tuesday evening Hassan Nasrallah applauded the Lebanese military and warned Israel: "If your hand stretches to the army again we will cut off that hand." He reiterated his earlier statements on the targeting of the resistance and Hizbullah and said he was in possession of sensitive documents implicating Israel in Al-Hariri's assassination which he will make public during a press conference on Monday 9 August.
What happens next remains to be seen. If it is the military conflict that looks increasingly imminent, few would be surprised. Israel, on the eve of direct "peace" talks with the Palestinians, is beating the drums of war ever more loudly, and the Lebanese army and the resistance remain on high alert.