Old Games, New Rules: Conflict on the Israel-Lebanon Border
Old Games, New Rules: Conflict on the Israel-Lebanon Border
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Only the US can stop an Israeli move into Rafah
Only the US can stop an Israeli move into Rafah
Report / Middle East & North Africa 6 minutes

Old Games, New Rules: Conflict on the Israel-Lebanon Border

The Israel-Lebanon border is the only Arab-Israeli front to have witnessed continuous violence since the late 1960s and it could become the trigger for a broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, in recent times it has been the object of very little international focus.

Executive Summary

front to have witnessed continuous violence since the late 1960s and it could become the trigger for a broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, in recent times it has been the object of very little international focus. Amidst raging warfare between Israelis and Palestinians and mounting war-talk surrounding Iraq, there is scant energy to devote to a conflict that, since Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, appears devoid of justification and which neither of its principal protagonists seems interested in escalating. But ignoring it could be costly. Neither its roots nor its implications have ever been purely local. Israel’s withdrawal has lessened the immediate costs but in some ways rendered the problem more unpredictable. Stripped of its cover as an Israeli-Lebanese border dispute, it has laid bare both the underlying Israeli-Syrian confrontation and Iran’s involvement in the conflict.

The past two years have seen a proliferation of small disputes over territory and resources along the “Blue Line,” the demarcation line between the two countries drawn by the UN in 2000 to confirm that Israel’s withdrawal complied with relevant UN Security Council resolutions. In other circumstances, disputes of this nature could be managed or even resolved with a modicum of ease. Yet in the absence of a comprehensive peace deal between Syria and Israel, southern Lebanon will remain both an instrument of and a possible trigger for broader regional disputes. Concrete, practical steps are urgently needed to minimise the risk of a dangerous conflagration.

Lebanon is not a major actor in Arab politics. Even its most potent political/military actor, Hizbollah, though it can inflict heavy casualties in Israel, has only a few hundred full time fighters. But Lebanon’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has principally been as a theatre in which various actors – mainly Syria, Iran, Israel, Hizbollah and the Palestinians – believe they can wage surrogate battles. Hizbollah and southern Lebanon in particular gained importance by becoming ideal proxies for the larger regional conflict, inflicting and absorbing military blows intended by and for others. Paradoxically, it is precisely Lebanon’s relative military insignificance that has made it and continues to make it so volatile and crucial an actor. Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, little has changed in this respect.

Since Israel’s withdrawal, the casualty rate has been dramatically reduced and the burden of the occupation lifted for both Lebanese and Israelis. Many factors that helped contain the conflict during the years of the occupation remain, notably that the protagonists, each for its own reason, do not appear to desire a full-scale war. Moreover, UN personnel and principally Western embassies continue to encourage restraint. As a result, occasional border skirmishes so far have been limited and localised.

However, the withdrawal also has introduced a dangerous sense of uncertainty. Two flashpoints have special potential to trigger major confrontation. First, Syria and Lebanon insist Israel still occupies a 25-square km. area, the Shab’a Farms, which, on flimsy evidence and despite considerable proof to the contrary, they claim to be Lebanese. Over the last two years, the area has seen repeated exchanges of fire. Twice Israeli reprisals have hit Syrian military installations deep inside Lebanon. Secondly, there is the lingering dispute over water rights in the Hasbani River and the adjacent Wazzani Springs. Israel insists that Lebanon’s decision to install pumping installations infringes on its rights to use shared water resources, threatening a forceful reaction and reminding Lebanon that Arab attempts to divert the sources of the Jordan River were a factor leading to the 1967 War.

The Blue Line and the Hasbani River contain ample sources of friction but the reasons for continued tension evidently lie elsewhere. The withdrawal removed the most obvious and apparent source of tension (Israel’s two-decades old occupation of Lebanese territory) without removing its underlying cause (the Israeli-Syrian conflict). In addition, it terminated both the old rules of the game and its accompanying international mechanism of conflict management (the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group, ILMG) without introducing alternative rules, redlines or mechanisms. Syria still wants to maintain tension on the border to remind Israel that their conflict continues and to retain leverage in future negotiations over the Golan Heights. But Israel’s willingness to limit its military responses to Lebanese targets has been reduced now that its occupation of Lebanese territory is over, bringing the conflict closer to its Syrian-Israeli-core.

Other factors also exacerbate tension. Lack of a realistic short-term prospect even for negotiations on that core dispute coupled with its sense of isolation give Damascus motive to find ways to bring itself back to Israeli and U.S. attention. As a result of its own regional calculations and the hybrid nature of its leadership, Iran remains an unpredictable and potentially menacing actor. The conviction shared by Prime Minister Sharon and high echelons of Israel’s military establishment that Israel’s deterrence credibility has been badly eroded – by absorbing Iraq’s Scud attacks in 1991, unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and continued negotiations with the Palestinians after the intifadah began – means Israel is less likely to show restraint in the face of provocation from Hizbollah. Nor can one exclude that Israel might seize upon Hizbollah activity or a U.S. attack against Iraq to try to deal Hizbollah a crushing blow. At the same time, mounting Palestinian casualties, and the reoccupation of West Bank cities have further radicalised Hizbollah and increased its desire to take action against Israel, while the possibility of war against Iraq only further inflames its rank and file. U.S. allegations of Hizbollah involvement in global terrorism and hints it may be Washington’s next target arguably moderate the group’s actions but could also could produce the opposite effect or embolden Israel to take matters into its hands.

Domestic interests may well have compelled Hizbollah to reduce its military operations in southern Lebanon but the party enjoys a special status and a degree of insularity vis-à-vis Lebanon's society and political system enabling it to carry out actions against Israel despite local criticism. Both Beirut and the international community missed the chance of Israel’s withdrawal to turn the South into a populous, economically active area. The constraints everyday civilian life and economic activity should present failed to materialise, enabling the belligerents to treat the area less as a hindrance to military activity than as a relatively cost-free shooting range.

The international community also should reiterate and emphasise its two-pronged position on the Blue Line: first, that it cannot suffer any challenge; but secondly, that it is not a final boundary but only a temporary point of reference to be adhered to while efforts for a comprehensive peace are undertaken. Moreover, international mediation mechanisms tend to be ad hoc, set in motion only when escalation threatens.

The list of possible catastrophic scenarios is long – for example, a deadly Hizbollah attack followed by Israeli retaliation against Syrian targets, then ever stronger counteractions as Syria seeks to maintain its credibility and Israel its deterrence. Any military act risks spiralling out of control, as one cannot be sure of the opponent’s resilience or intent.

In the long term, conflict management cannot substitute for a comprehensive solution of the wider conflict in which Israel, Syria and Lebanon have been embroiled for more than 50 years[fn]For ICG’s view of that comprehensive solution, see ICG Middle East Reports No s 2, 3, and 4: Middle East Endgame I: Getting to a Comprehesive Arab-Israeli Peace Settlement; Middle East Endgame II: How a Comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian Settlement Would Look; and Middle East Endgame III: Israel, Syria and Lebanon – How Comprehensive Peace Settlements Would Look, all 16 July 2002.Hide Footnote  but that is not immediately realistic. Nor is a total cessation of hostilities. Still, the conflict in southern Lebanon must be addressed. This report outlines a variety of concrete, practical steps that can diminish the impact of the underlying political dispute, bolster constraints, amplify and institutionalise international mediation and so minimise the risks of escalation that could spiral out of control.

Amman/Brussels, 18 November 2002

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