There is a silly and irritating — and also dangerous — debate going on about cutting off American military aid to the Lebanese Army in the wake of its firefight with IDF forces who insisted on going ahead with “routine maintenance” along the Blue Line separating the two country’s armies, despite advice and strong requests to the contrary.
This “routine maintenance” operation consisted of trimming a tree and/or shrubs in one of the enclaves along the Blue Line — an enclave that Lebanon, at least, says is contested [while Israel claims, bluntly and forcefully, “It’s ours“, and carries out patrolling and other “routine maintenance” operations to “show the flag” and assert its vision of sovereignty.
One could certainly question whether this “routine maintenance” was absolutely essential, on that day, for security reasons [to give the Israeli military a few more seconds advance notice of any potentially-hostile movement there], when Israel maintains a number of satellites in orbit carrying very high-resolution cameras that monitor all activities in the region in what is said to be very impressive detail. [Not to mention Israel’s surveillance of Lebanon — and other parts of the region — by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), see below]
On the very day of the firefight (3 August) a journalist asked the U.S. State Department spokesperson whether or not the Lebanese Army had used any of its U.S-provided material to attack the IDF “tree-trimmers”. [The IDF local commander on the spot was identified and killed by a Lebanese Army sniper, becoming the only Israeli casualty, though he was standing more than half a mile or some 80 meters away. Three Lebanese Army soldiers and one Lebanese journalist were killed in the firefight…]
Nobody [at least, not to my knowledge] has asked if the Israeli soliders were using U.S.-provided equipment.
Since then, momentum has gathered in the U.S. Congress to stop aid to the Lebanese Army.
I was struck by an email I received on Monday (9 August), containing a press release, which informed me that the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee put a hold on future assistance to the Lebanese Army on 2 August — the day before the firefight. The email said that “Congressman Howard L. Berman, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released the following statement regarding the hold he placed on future U.S. military assistance to Lebanon on August 2nd, 2010: ‘I have been concerned for sometime about reported Hizballah influence on the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and its implications for our military assistance program for Lebanon. For that reason, on August 2, I placed a hold on a $100 million dollar security assistance package to the LAF. The incident on the Israel-Lebanon border only one day after my hold was placed simply reinforces the critical need for the United States to conduct an in-depth policy review of its relationship with the Lebanese military. I strongly condemn the unprovoked attacked by the Lebanese Army that resulted in the death of an Israeli officer. Until we know more about this incident and the nature of Hizballah influence on the LAF — and can assure that the LAF is a responsible actor — I cannot in good conscience allow the United States to continue sending weapons to Lebanon”.
I have seen statements by other congressmen boasting of their actions — on 3 August, after the firefight — to support such a hold.
Today, Juan Cole has argued, on his Informed Comment blog, that “Withholding or blocking US military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, however, is a short-sighted policy that will harm US interests in the Middle East and will also have negative implications in the medium to long term for Israel. The allegation, which originates in propaganda offices in Israel, that the Lebanese armed forces have somehow been taken over by or infiltrated by Hizbullah is frankly ridiculous. The most powerful officers are Maronite Christians, and President Michel Sulaiman had been chief of staff before becoming president. Hint: Michel is not a Muslim name. Sulaiman proposed building up the armed forces in response to the border misunderstanding, and all the political factions in Lebanon– Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze, praised him for it. Again, this initiative is coming from the Christian leadership. Whether Hizbullah really wants the army of the central government strengthened is not clear, but they could hardly protest the shoring up of a national institution (despite being Shiite fundamentalists, Hizbullah has consistently supported a strong, united Lebanon and is among the foremost purely Lebanese nationalist forces in the country). The silly allegation about Hizbullah and the LAF is a smear, and derives from Tel Aviv’s unease with not being able to have its way with Lebanon at will. In particular, Israeli hawks have long coveted the water resources of south Lebanon, and don’t want a strong Lebanese army and state that would put an end to that expansionist dream … In contrast, if the US helps quietly build up the Lebanese armed forces, at some point they will naturally overshadow Hizbullah. It is not desirable that the army be positioned as anti-Hizbullah nor that it take on the militia militarily. But in the medium term, a strong army would just be able better to assert its prerogatives. And it is better if that army is close to NATO powers, not to Iran … Lebanon’s army collapsed in the mid-1970s in the face of the Civil War. In the 1990s after that war was ended by a new national pact brokered at the Saudi resort city of Taef, the army began being rebuilt. It had a rival in the south of the country in the form of the Hizbullah fundamentalist Shiite militia. The LAF was stunted by the Syrian occupation, which ended in 2005. It was a bystander in the 2006 war, though the Israelis killed some officers and struck at a barracks in Beirut and at facilities as far north as Tripoli (none of these Israeli strikes on the LAF had anything to do with Tel Aviv’s war on Hizbullah. There are no Shiites in Tripoli). Since the Likudniks are saying that the Israeli officer who unfortunately died in last week’s border incident was ‘executed’, one would like to know if the 49 Lebanese officers Israel killed in 2006 were also executed … The main role of the LAF is likely to remain internal. If you want al-Qaeda-type organizations like Fath al-Islam proliferating and Hizbullah becoming unchallenged and a general power vacuum that favors forces of disorder and terrorism, then cut off your nose to spite your face and deprive little Lebanon of its $100 million this year for its military”. This is posted here.
UPDATE: Lebanon’s Defense Minister Elias Murr told journalists today that “Whoever sets as a condition that the aid should not be used to protect Lebanon’s land, people and borders from the (Israeli) enemy can keep their money”, according to a report by Agence France Presse, here. The AFP story also reported that “An advisor to Lebanese President Michel Sleiman has also criticised the US decision” — and said that “support for the army was central to upholding Lebanon’s sovereignty”.
See our earlier posts — before this firefight — reporting on the U.S. State Department’s well-publicized but little-analyzed vaunting of America’s determination to maintain Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge [QME] in the region. This year, Israel is getting nearly $3 billion dollars in military assistance [but no civilian aid, according to Bank of Israel head Stanley Fischer], plus a contribution to Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense, and a few other odds and ends here and there…
Meanwhile, Haaretz correspondents Avi Issacharoff and Jack Khoury have published an analysis today of some of the more interesting statements made by Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah in a televised speech on Monday night that riveted much of the region. The Haaretz article says that “In his fifth speech in less than three weeks, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah tried to blame the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri on Israel. Nasrallah said at a Beirut news conference on Monday evening that Israel had masterminded the murder in order to get Syria to withdraw from Lebanon. He said he was prepared to hand over the proof to an independent inquiry … He also showed a picture of an Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle that was ostensibly documenting the surroundings of Hariri’s home in a Beirut suburb and a number of central government institutions in the city. Nasrallah also displayed video clips which he claimed had been filmed by Israeli UAVs that kept an eye on the road leading to Hariri’s brother’s house in Sidon, as well as documentation of Israeli air movements near the Lebanese coast on the day of Hariri’s assassination … Turning to the Israeli naval commando disaster [in 1997], he said that Hezbollah had several times intercepted in real-time pictures broadcast by an UAV to Israel that showed the area of the action. This indicated to the organization that Israel planned to take action there, and therefore Hezbollah set up ambushes there that attacked the commandos. Hezbollah waited for the commandos for several weeks there, he added. This information is not new since it was published in Maariv in 2007 by Amir Rapaport. During the news conference, Nasrallah showed two video clips which he said were connected with the incident. The first was from before the incident – this was supposedly the one from which Hezbollah understood that Israel was planning action there – and the second purportedly showed Israeli fighters boarding a plane on the day of the 1977 naval commando raid. However, there was no documentation of the bombing or the raid itself. Nasrallah added that since then Israel has learned to encrypt UAV broadcasts”… This Haaretz follow-up report can be read in full here.