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Israel-Lebanon Border Dispute: Warmer But Not Hot

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Alexander Langlois

The fortunate reality is that neither actor desires a major escalation on their disputed border.

In a turbulent year for both Israel and Lebanon, one would assume the two countries would work to avoid additional crises at all costs. Rather, Tel Aviv and Beirut are opting to escalate their long-running border dispute, raising concerns regarding a major conflict like the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah War. Yet, while neither side can realistically afford renewed fighting of such a magnitude, this round likely represents an attempted show of strength on the part of actors in both countries—one that centralizes so-called “deterrence through resilience” on the border while managing and minimizing potentially escalatory actions. Additionally, political elites in both countries likely see the value of the crisis in distracting their populaces from other pressing issues.

Current events are symptoms of long-running border disputes in the area where Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet. This includes the city of Ghajar and the rural areas of Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Chouba Hills—all areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War and originally part of Syria’s Golan Heights. Israel currently occupies Golan despite UN condemnation following its annexation in 1981. This worsened Tel Aviv’s border conflict with Beirut while further complicating a pre-existing dispute between Syria and Lebanon. Damascus and Beirut have long disagreed over the Golan borders demarcated during the former French Mandate and Ottoman eras.

As a result, the two countries have sparred over relatively minuscule bits of territory for decades, often with only the slightest movements along the “Blue Line”—the established border following the Israeli withdrawal and controlled by the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). UNIFIL was established in 1978 to oversee an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. Following the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, the UN amended UNIFIL’s mandate to monitor the cessation of hostilities and act as a neutral arbiter to keep the peace. Roughly 9,300 UN peacekeepers are deployed to the disputed area.

Yet UNIFIL struggles to contain aggression on either side of the border, as reflected by the last two months of aggressive actions by Israel and Hezbollah. The current crisis revolves around Hezbollah’s establishment of an “outpost” in the form of two tents in the Chebaa Farms and Kfar Chouba Hills area and claims it shot down an Israeli drone in June. Hezbollah and other Lebanese officials claim the move was in response to Israel’s construction of a border fence around the Lebanese side of Ghajar, a city spanning both Lebanon and the Golan split in half upon the Blue Line’s creation in 2000. The northern part of the city was re-occupied by Israel in 2006. Tel Aviv refuses to vacate the city and effectively prevents entry from the Lebanese side, violating the terms of the split.

A series of tit-for-tat incidents occurred before and after Israel asked UNIFIL to request the tents’ removal, which Beirut conditioned upon Tel Aviv’s pullout from Ghajar. This includes an incident between an Israeli bulldozer and soldiers of each country on July 5, Israeli shelling near Kfar Chouba in response to a missile fired near Ghajar into its territory on July 6, and an explosion near the Lebanese city of Bustan that wounded three Hezbollah members supposedly attempting to cross into Israel and sabotage the border fence on July 12—the seventeenth anniversary of the beginning of the 2006 war. Israel claims it used stun grenades, while Hezbollah accused Tel Aviv of excessive force. A similar construction incident occurred on July 20 that led Israeli forces to launch smoke grenades at Lebanese citizens attempting to build a road near the border.

This series of events is unique from other issues that regularly occur in these areas, not limited to Hezbollah-backed protests along the border or militant attempts to enter Israel. Typically, such problems are connected to violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), given Hezbollah’s strong support for the Palestinian resistance. Similarly, Israel violates the border with its occupation of the Golan and military flights over Lebanon to bomb Iranian targets in Syria, let alone aggressive actions that cross the border—often against the border protests in Lebanese territory.

For Lebanon, and particularly Hezbollah, this round is at least partially connected to recent violence in the West Bank—namely, the brutal Israeli raid on Jenin on July 4 that killed twelve Palestinians and destroyed vast stretches of property. However, the Israeli fence around northern Ghajar also plays a role, given the long-running nature of disputes in this area and the northern Golan more broadly. Beirut feels strongly about its right to these areas—making this situation more than just a Hezbollah issue.

Of potentially equal importance to Lebanon’s political elites is the unifying nature of the situation and its ability to distract the public, as some Hezbollah affiliates have indirectly hinted. Indeed, a renewed border crisis offers a useful distraction for Lebanon’s political class, who wish to draw public attention away from the economic and political nightmare of the last few years. While hardly enough to resolve widespread frustrations, Lebanon’s powers that be likely view a manageable crisis as helpful at a time when their popularity is waning. One need only look at their rampant scapegoating of Syrian refugees to understand how Lebanon’s elites view and utilize a good distraction.

For Israel, any border dispute threatens deterrence against attacks from Iran-backed militants. Tel Aviv is home to a hawkish approach to national security that often rejects compromise—at least publicly—with such groups. Hezbollah is no exception, given it poses the greatest threat to Israel on its border. While the Israeli government likely views this situation as manageable as well, it will not show weakness in the face of one of its core rivals. Hezbollah will likely follow suit.

The fortunate reality is that neither actor desires a major escalation on their disputed border. Israel is struggling with domestic unrest stemming from a deeply polarizing judicial reform effort under the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an increasingly difficult security situation in the West Bank that it appears to be ill-prepared to address without a full-scale military operation—one that will cause a full-blown war with Palestinian militants and further harm its international image. On the other hand, Hezbollah does not appear willing to take on Israel, as evidenced by its reaction to the Hamas rocket launch from southern Lebanon in early April. It should be noted that Tel Aviv also opted to avoid escalation at that time, assessing Hezbollah was not interested in a broader war.

For these reasons, while this round of border insecurity is notable and exceptional, neither major actor appears willing to escalate their actions beyond a point of no control. The time is not ripe for a repeat of 2006—a reality that hopefully sustains itself to prevent such bloodshed.

Alexander Langlois is a foreign policy analyst focused on the Middle East and North Africa. He holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service