Lebanon’s southern border with Israel came very close to a military conflagration Tuesday, amidst a showdown between the international community and Iran’s regime, which continues to defiantly develop nuclear weapons. Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, has demonstrated to the West that it can trigger a wider conflict on behalf of its patron.
The exchange of fire between Israeli forces and units from the Lebanese Army ended with the killing of three Lebanese soldiers, two of them identified as Sgts Abdullah Tufaili and Robert Ashi as well the death of a correspondent for pro-Syrian daily al Akhbar, Assaf Abu Rahhal. Hezbollah’s television station, al-Manar, reported that one of its correspondents Ali Shuaib was wounded. For its part, Israel said one battalion commander Lt Col. Dov Harari was killed and a platoon commander Captain Ezra Lakia was critically wounded.
The incident started near the village of Adaisse, along the demarcation line. What is clear is that Lebanese forces fired first. Lebanon’s military spokespersons claimed an Israeli patrol crossed the border, prompting the Lebanese army to push the patrol back. Israel says its soldiers didn’t cross the international border; they were trimming a tree overlooking the blue line. The United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has since confirmed that the tree was located on Israel’s side of the border.
UNIFIL claims that it secures the Israeli-Lebanese border under the Security Council Resolution 1701, which was issued after the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006. But the blue helmets do next to nothing. Hezbollah and other armed jihadist groups roam the valleys at night and actively smuggling weapons and ammunition to the area in preparation for the next conflict with Israel.
Yesterday’s clash could have escalated if Israel had not shown great restraint. The Israelis likely knew that the attack it endured was designed to drag its military into an unplanned response against Lebanon, amidst heightened tension Iran and the United States. Indeed, Israel should be acknowledged as having prevented a wider conflagration.
Hezbollah, surprisingly, also demonstrated some restraint yesterday. The Iranian proxy didn’t rush to shell the northern Israel after the clash. However, Hezbollah’s restraint does not reflect a desire for peace. This smaller attack was choreographed. It was likely structured by Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah’s war room. This smaller skirmish is likely a prelude to the big one. Indeed, it sets a predicate for future confrontations.
Nasrallah seemed to confirm this in a speech he delivered in Beirut just few hours after the clashes. At an event commemorating the fifth anniversary of the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War, thousands of partisans were on site, along with dozens of politicians and some two hundred foreign jihadists. Nasrallah spent one third of a long speech discussing the morning’s incident. Indeed, it appeared that he had prepared the text of his speech well before the morning’s events. Nasrallah explained that he had adopted a new strategy to “encourage the Lebanese Army to fight Israel.”
Additionally, it must not be overlooked that television crews from al-Manar and al-Akhbar were on the scene when the fighting broke out? How could they have known to be there without advanced coordination?
Interestingly, Nasrallah admitted in his speech that Hezbollah was in full breach to UNSCR 1701, which forbids the presence of militias in southern Lebanon. Nasrallah boasted about “his commanders rushing to help” the Lebanese army units in the area. Analysts have also pointed to the fact that the Lebanese army has been infiltrated by Hezbollah, so even if the terrorist group does not have an official presence in these areas, their influence in palpable.
In the final analysis, Nasrallah has signaled to international community that yesterday’s exchange of fire was just the beginning. Indeed, he can single-handedly trigger a war between Israel and Lebanon. This will become increasingly important as tensions continue to simmer between Iran and the West.
Walid Phares is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Fox News contributor.