Drums of war
Is the Lebanese-Israeli border clash the first shot in a new and much-anticipated regional war? Omayma Abdel-Latif
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Civil defence workers and Lebanese soldiers carry an injured soldier after an exchange of fire between Lebanese and Israeli forces in the village of Adeisseh
When Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad warned last Sunday, "the possibility of war is increasing [in the region]," he did could not have known his prophecy would come true so soon. Although it is too early to know whether or not the deadly clashes that took place Tuesday on Lebanon's southern borders with Israel was a one-off incident or the start of a conflict that could spread across the region, it served as a grim reminder of the volatile situation in an area described as "exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous" in a recent report by International Crisis Group (ICG).
The incident claimed the lives of two soldiers, one journalist from the Lebanese side, and an army colonel from the Israeli side. Israeli army officials described it as "an individual incident", a move that suggested Israel's desire to contain the situation. It was, nonetheless, seen by many as a test of the much talked about formula of "the army, the people and the resistance" as the core of Lebanon's self defence strategy against continued Israeli aggression. And despite modest capabilities in the face of the ruthless Israeli war machine, the Lebanese Army's performance was much praised, including by Hizbullah.
The incident is particularly being viewed as a provocation against Hizbullah. Hizbullah's conspicuous absence from the scene of fighting during "those sensitive hours", in the words of Hassan Nasrallah, suggested that the group was exercising maximal self-restraint.
Addressing a large audience gathered in commemoration, four years on, of Hizbullah's victory in the July 2006 war, Nasrallah disclosed that the movement's fighters were on high alert alongside the Lebanese Army when clashes erupted, but "were ordered to stand down to avoid escalation". He also cited other reasons for Hizbullah's restraint. "We did not know where this was heading, but we told the army commander that the resistance was at his disposal," he said.
Another reason that kept the resistance movement back was the fear that Hizbullah's intervention would be interpreted by political rivals as fulfilling Iranian- Syrian instructions to create an explosive situation on Lebanon's southern border. "It could have been said that our interference proves that we are proxies of Iran and Syria and that it was a response to the sanctions imposed on Iran. I was under a lot of pressure because of those considerations," Nasrallah told thousands of supporters Tuesday night.
One key motive behind Hizbullah's restraint, which Nasrallah deliberately refrained from citing, was the fact that Hizbullah does not want to divert attention from what it considers to be a more important battle against Israel -- the Hariri Tribunal. The decision to delay military confrontation with Israel until further notice follows from this. Although the ICG report suggested that "fear that the next war would be more destructive" was the main deterrent forcing Hizbullah and Israel to avoid a new round of fighting, according to sources close to Hizbullah is focused on clearing its name after press reports that "undisciplined members" of Hizbullah would be indicted in the Rafik Al-Hariri assassination investigation.
To this end, Nasrallah disclosed that his party conducted a year-and-a-half probe into the Hariri assassination. While he said that Hizbullah was awaiting the results of Arab initiatives, the resistance reserved the right to defend itself against any campaigns vilifying it.
Hizbullah's probe concluded that Israel assassinated Al-Hariri. Nasrallah has repeatedly criticised the international investigation for ruling out Israel's involvement. Nasrallah said he would substantiate Hizbullah's claim at a news conference due Monday. "I accuse the Israeli enemy of the assassination of [former] prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri and ... I will prove this by unveiling sensitive information at a press conference on Monday," Nasrallah said.
The Hizbullah chief added he would present concrete audiovisual evidence showing that Israeli agents had worked to exploit Hizbullah's "political rivalry" with Hariri, in an attempt to pin the murder on Hizbullah. Nasrallah refrained from giving more details.
About the prospects of a new war in the region, Nasrallah dismissed the possibility, despite saying "there is something worrying going on". "When there is a deal being cooked for Palestine, those of us who have the experience have the right to worry about what will happen to Lebanon," he said.