More on the recent Israeli-Lebanese firefight

lsraeli political and security analyst Shlomo Brom, [Brig-Gen {Res}], of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, INSS, has just written that: “Underlying this incident is the dispute between Israel and Lebanon over the demarcation of the Blue Line separating Lebanon and Israel, as well as Lebanon’s political reality. In its unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000, Israel withdrew to the Blue Line. This is not the international border agreed upon by Israel and Lebanon, although its route largely coincides with the 1923 international border. When Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, it fulfilled Security Council Resolution 425 calling on Israel to return to the recognized border between Israel and Lebanon prior to Operation Litani in 1978. This border, which was demarcated in cooperation with the UN, is called the Blue Line. Part of the Blue Line demarcation is accepted by Israel and Lebanon and is marked jointly on the ground, but there are still points of contention between the sides regarding the unmarked sections and how to translate the Blue Line in those locations into territorial markers. There are also places where due to topography the Israeli border fence is not situated on the border itself but within Israeli territory, with small pieces of sovereign Israeli land remaining on the Lebanese side of the fence. [n.b – This analyst is expressing an Israeli view, of course, as he certainly acknowledges.] The Lebanese army has a tendency to view Israeli military activity beyond the fence as an infiltration into Lebanese territory, even if it occurs in these areas. In the August 3 incident, Israeli activity to clear vegetation took place in territory of this category, beyond the fence and in an area with no border marking. The Lebanese claimed after the incident that the route of the Blue Line at this particular point is under dispute“.

Meanwhile, there’s an interesting view on what UNIFIL did as the confrontation began, which I found thanks to a tip from our reader, who comments under the name of Yul. This report on Youtube, shows a couple of “blue-beret” UNIFIL peacekeepers [who later put on blue helmets], one waving a blue UN flag, while one shouts, alternatively, (1) to the IDF to “Stop, Stop doing anything” [the IDF was carrying out “routine-maintenance” tree and shrub-pruning operation on the other side of a fence], and then (2) “Lower your guns”, to the Lebanese Army troops, lying on their bellies with weapons pointed as this IDF “routine-maintenance” proceeds [with heavy military escort]:

Shlomo Brom writes, in his INSS insight analysis, that “The Lebanese government could certainly have protested with more moderation and complained to UNIFIL about what it deemed was an IDF violation, instead of opening fire. However it chose to demonstrate a forceful policy and to instruct Lebanese army units in southern Lebanon accordingly. To be sure, there is a question as to whether there was a specific directive from Beirut to open fire in this particular case, but it is clear that the firm policy from Beirut’s direction played a key role in decisions by the local Lebanese command”.

However, as we have learned from reports published [in identical language] in at least two separate Israeli papers last week, and discussed in comments in an earlier post on this blog, the IDF has decided — since the “Second Lebanon War” in 2006 — to implement a forceful policy by “showing the flag” on a near-daily basis in enclaves along the Blue Line, in order to demonstrate Israeli claims to sovereignty.

So, it should be noted that while the IDF has been showing its muscle for several years, the Lebanese Army engaged the IDF for the first time ever, last week…

Shlomo Brom writes that “It seems the main reason for this policy is the political need for the Lebanese army to demonstrate that it – and not Hizbollah – is the defender of Lebanese sovereignty. In the game of internal Lebanese politics, Hizbollah justifies its military force as being Lebanon’s defender. Thus Hizbollah rushed in to declare that after this incident, next time its forces would respond to an attack on the Lebanese army, this in order to underline the authenticity of its role as defender of Lebanese sovereignty”.

Actually, if memory serves, Hizballah was somewhat more deferential to the Lebanese Army, and said it would respond to future attacks on the Lebanese Army if the Lebanese Army asks Hizballah to do so…

In any case, Brom’s analysis continues: “Moreover, Hizbollah senior officials claimed the incident was an expression of Israel’s desire to draw Hizbollah into a broad military confrontation. Apparently, Hizbollah has no interest in such a confrontation, at least at this time, and this reflects the extent of the mutual deterrence between Israel and Hizbollah that evolved in the aftermath of the 2006 war. This deterrence is based on the threat and capability of both sides to seriously damage the home front of the other”…

And, Brom said, “Also important here is UNIFIL’s role. If one of the two sides is interested in harming the other, it is not within UNIFIL’s power to prevent it, nor is it within its mandate. UNIFIL serves as a mechanism to help prevent conflict eruption when both sides have no interest in friction. In this case it appears that UNIFIL, cognizant of the dispute between the sides, tried to prevent the incident. Although it failed in this regard, it played an important role in contacts between the parties intent on containing the incident and preventing its mushrooming”.

Of course, it would be better if UNIFIL could fulfill its role without looking quite so silly.

UNIFIL was reportedly notified by the IDF at 0630 am on the morning of this engagement. The IDF began its “routine maintenance” at 1130 am — and the film shown on Youtube was clearly taken at mid-day.

Brom then summarizes: “Thus the initial conclusion from the August 3 incident is that all of the involved parties – Israel, Hizbollah, and the Lebanese government – want to avoid being drawn into a military confrontation and hence will strive to contain points of friction. The second conclusion is that since the interest of all sides at this time is to minimize points of friction, efforts toward the precise demarcation of the Blue Line on the ground under UNIFIL auspices must be accelerated. [Wouldn’t it have been better, here, to have written “under UN auspices”?] The third conclusion is that UNIFIL fulfills a positive and stabilizing role, even if it is unable to satisfy exaggerated Israeli expectations – to forcibly prevent any attempt to strike Israel. Within the limited framework of the mandate under Security Council Resolution 1701, UNIFIL is indeed functioning reasonably”. Shlomo Brom’s INSS analysis can be read in full here.

What does UNIFIL have to say today? The Blue Line is "sensitive", but "quiet prevails at this time"

This is what the UN likes best – holding meetings… [This one was, unsurprisingly, “constructive”]. That, and calling on both sides to exercise “maximum restraint” [safely, after the most senior officials in the U.S. administration already used the exact same language]…

Here is a statement issued today by the UNIFIL spokesperson in Naqoura, Lebanon:
“UNIFIL Force Commander Major-General Alberto Asarta Cuevas chaired an extraordinary tripartite meeting with senior representatives of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) tonight at the UN Position at the Ras Al Naqoura crossing in south Lebanon. The UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Mr. Michael Williams also attended and addressed the meeting. The meeting specifically addressed the serious situation that developed in the last two days following the exchange of fire between Lebanese and Israeli forces across the Blue Line in El Adeisse yesterday, causing regrettable loss of lives. UNIFIL informed the parties that a thorough investigation into yesterday’s events is underway and presented its preliminary findings. On completion of the ongoing investigation, UNIFIL will share its findings with both the parties. In the meantime, UNIFIL urged the parties to exercise maximum restraint, avoid any action that could serve to heighten tensions, and work with UNIFIL in taking steps to prevent any recurrence of such a situation. Following the tripartite meeting, UNIFIL Force Commander Major-General Asarta said: ‘We had a constructive meeting. I stressed the importance of ensuring full respect for the Blue Line by all the parties. I reiterated the sensitivity of the Blue Line and urged utmost caution in any actions along the Blue Line that could be perceived as provocative and exacerbate tensions. I called on the parties to utilize the liaison and coordination mechanism through UNIFIL particularly on matters relating to the Blue Line in order to minimize the scope for any misunderstandings or apprehensions that may lead to wanton escalation’. The Force Commander noted that both the parties renewed their commitment to the cessation of hostilities and to UN Security Council resolution 1701 (2006) and undertook to work with UNIFIL to ensure that incidents of violence are avoided in the future.  He added that the situation has returned to normal and quiet prevails in UNIFIL’s area of operations at this time”.

UPDATE: The IDF later issued a rather uninformative statement, revealing only that it “was represented by Brig. Gen. Yossi Hyman, Head of Strategy in the IDF Planning Department, who was brought together with an LAF representative and UNIFIL Commander Gen. Alberto Asarta Cuevas. During the meeting, Gen. Cuevas urged both parties to exercise restraint in order to ‘refrain from any action that could lead to an escalation’.   Gen. Cuevas asked the LAF and the IDF to cooperate with UNIFIL, in order to prevent any future misunderstandings which could result in even worse consequences.  ‘UNIFIL is in contact with both sides, in order to ensure that the situation in the area is under control and that there is no violation of the Blue Line, it was reported”. This IDF statement is posted here.

Then, repeating its maddeningly careless (though perhaps deliberate) and imprecise use of language, the IDF statement concluded this statement by noting that “The Spokesman for the US State Department, Philip Crowley, also discussed the event during a press conference in Washington.  According to him, ‘the shootings by the Lebanese army towards IDF forces on the northern border are completely unjustified’.  Crowley also stressed that the pruning work executed by the IDF took place in Israeli territory“.

Actually, Crowley did not attibute that exact piece of territory to Israel.   Despite what the IDF wrote in their statement, a consultation of the transcript provided by the U.S.  State Department shows Assistant Secretary Philip J. Crowley told journalists at the daily State Department briefing in Washington on Wednesday that what Crowley said was this:  “The United Nations has now established that the trees cut by the Israeli Defense Forces were on the Israeli side of the line that separates Israel and Lebanon [n.b. – Crowley himself also carelessly and imprecisely used the word “border” a couple of times, later, but he was very careful not to say that the territory in question belonged to Israel].  The firing by Lebanese Armed Forces was wholly unjustified and unwarranted”.

Then, there was this exchange with a journalist at the State Department briefing:

QUESTION: Are the lines of demarcation along that border clearly defined? Do you know from the line?

MR. CROWLEY: I can only cite information reported today that the precise border is a matter of some dispute between the two countries. I’m not here to get involved in the middle of that.

QUESTION: One last quick follow-up. Are you concerned that the Israeli army might take this as a pretext to strike across the Lebanese border?

MR. CROWLEY: We certainly, as we have made clear yesterday and today and will continue to make clear, we do not think that this incident should escalate any further.

QUESTION: Do you take a – do you have any position on the actual tree trimming –

MR. CROWLEY: Again –

QUESTION: — in terms of whether – no, no, this is a serious question. I’m not suggesting that –

MR. CROWLEY: No, it is a serious question.

QUESTION: — tree surgeons be brought in to be part of the UNIFIL team.  But I am wondering if you think that that in itself is a provocative – if that is provocative.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the idea that you would have tree trimmings so you have clear sightlines across the border so that you would hope that these clear sightlines would prevent misunderstandings or unfortunate actions on side or the other. So – but the issue that I’m sure was covered today was whether there was proper notification that there was going to be this kind of activity on one side of the border. And if there was that kind of notification, how was it received on the other side? And precisely, what led to the circumstances where the Lebanese Armed Forces fired on the Israelis?

QUESTION: But your position would be then if there was proper notification, then it shouldn’t be a problem.

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think we’re against tree trimming along the border if it improves – if it increases security along the border”…

UN Blue Line in Lebanon – not a border, but a "line of withdrawal"

Here is a statement from the UNIFIL spokesperson in Lebanon today:
Following the exchange of fire between the Lebanese army and the Israeli army across the Blue Line in El Adeisse yesterday, the UNIFIL investigators were on the ground and commenced investigations. The investigations are still ongoing and the findings will be intimated on conclusion of the investigations. UNIFIL established, however, that the trees being cut by the Israeli army are located south of the Blue Line on the Israeli side. In this area the Lebanese government had some reservations concerning the Blue Line, as did the Israeli government at some other locations, at the time the Blue Line was identified in the year 2000 as the Line of Withdrawal of Israeli Forces from Lebanon. However, both Lebanon and Israel confirmed to the UN Secretary-General that, notwithstanding their reservations, identifying the Line was solely the responsibility of the United Nations and that they will respect the Line as identified. The UN position is that the Blue Line must be respected in its entirety by all parties. UNIFIL is in contact with both the parties to keep the situation under control and to ensure that there is no violation of the Blue Line in this area.

The IDF reports today that “In an interview on Wednesday morning (Aug. 4) with Israeli Army Radio, Hungarian diplomat Milos Strugar, who is serving as the political advisor to the UNIFIL commander, explained that the work carried out by the IDF along the border with Lebanon took place within Israeli territory and was coordinated ahead of time with the Lebanese army. ‘The Israelis pruned a tree south of the Blue Line. The pruning was done in the area of the Al-Adaisah village, north of Misgav-Am. A UNIFIL technical crew will go to that area today and measure the distance between the area where the incident took place and the Blue Line’ … Strugar emphasized that the IDF coordinated the pruning work with the Lebanese Army through UNIFIL. ‘I can confirm that the IDF had coordinated the pruning work along the border with the Lebanese Army through UNIFIL. The IDF informed UNIFIL that it would be pruning a tree on the northern side of the border fence, but south of the international border line’. Strugar added that the situation immediately intensified, as the Lebanese Army was also in the area. ‘Our people who were there tried to pacify the situation and to enable the IDF’s work. In the morning, the IDF informed us of their work and we passed that on to the Lebanese Army. Our investigation into this subject is not completed, and I am awaiting the final report which will be publicized today’, Strugar added”. The IDF account of Strugar’s remarks went on to say that “The Hungarian diplomat said that UNIFIL personnel ‘face many complaints regarding provocations and arousals by the Lebanese Army against IDF soldiers on a daily basis. There are many incidents and we operate in order to prevent them. This happens almost every day. There is a great deal of tension on the border’. That being said, he added that ‘what happened today cannot be compared to anything else. This is the most serious incident which took place since 2006’.” This IDF story is posted here.

Elsewhere, the IDF website continues to argue, incorrectly, that the Blue Line is a border, or a de facto border. It is not. Maybe, someday, it might become a border — or it might not. But for the time being, the Blue Line is nothing other than a demarcation line.

What it demarcates, according to the UNIFIL statement above (confirmed in the internally-contradictory IDF statement, here, which was written with a great deal of imprecision due in part to a certain linguistic laziness, and in part to impatience with any other views), is “the line towards which the IDF withdrew upon conclusion of Operation Litani in 1978, according to UN Security Council Resolution 425”.

This confused, contradictory and confusing IDF statement also says, however, that “The Blue Line is an international border between Israel and Lebanon which was determined by the United Nations after the IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000”.

But, the United Nations does not determine international borders.

This very same confused, contradictory and confusing IDF statement states that “The Blue Line is a temporary line which has not been mentioned in any official agreements between Israel and Lebanon, and which is based on the international border which was determined by the countries in 1923. That being said, it is recognized as a de facto border between the two countries”.

If so, it is recognized in this way only by Israel.

This confused, contradictory and confusing IDF statement notes that: “From the First Lebanon War until 2000, IDF forces remained beyond this border line. However, upon the Israeli government’s decision for a one-sided withdrawal from southern Lebanon, the IDF forces returned to Israel and remained, with recognition by the UN of a complete withdrawal by Israel to her authorized and legitimate borders … During the Second Lebanon War in 2996, the IDF crossed the Blue Line and operated there for the duration of a month. However, upon completion of the war and the approval of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, IDF withdrew behind the internationally recognized border line. On Tuesday morning (Aug. 3), IDF forces operated within Israeli territory on the Israeli side of the Blue Line borders, where the IDF has routinely operates in an agreed-upon manner since the end of the Second Lebanon War”…

News reports Wednesday morning say that the IDF has returned to the exact same spot where the Lebanese Army and IDF fired upon each other yesterday, to do the exact same tree-pruning…

UN taking stiff position on IDF bulldozer crossing technical fence in southern Lebanon

The UN said today, about Wednesday night’s shooting on the southen border of Lebanon, that “The exchange of fire, which was initiated by the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] after an IDF [Israeli Defence Forces]bulldozer crossed the technical fence in an apparent attempt to clear the area between the technical fence and the Blue Line of mines, constitutes a breach of the cessation of hostilities as laid out in Security Council resolution 1701 (2006)…UNIFIL is currently ascertaining all the facts concerning the incident…UNIFIL troops, in coordination with the Lebanese army, have also placed a sign to visibly mark the Blue Line in this area. The Force Commander, Maj. Gen Graziano, has been in contact with the parties and has called for a tripartite meeting with the senior representatives of the Lebanese Army and the Israel Defence Force early next week…”

The previous night’s shooting may have been the first time the Lebanese Army ever actually fired upon Israeli forces.

The Security Council also issued a statement saying: “The members of the Council expressed deep concern about this incident. They look forward to the ascertaining of all the facts by UNIFIL and to the forthcoming tripartite meeting asked for by UNIFIL Force Commander. The members of the Council appealed to all parties to respect the Blue Line in its entirety, to exercise utmost restraint and to refrain from any action that could further escalate the situation.”