Sunday 8 August 2010

The Tree That Almost Started a War

Events on the northern border of Israel last week have demonstrated just how fragile the ceasefire with Lebanon really is. This, in turn, mirrors the fragility of the relationships that exist around the Middle East, not only between Israel and the Arab countries that surround her, but also between the Arab countries themselves. This fragility has reached a point where the situation has become totally ridiculous.

Since the end of the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, a fragile peace has held between Israel and Lebanon. UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon) was deployed to police the implementation of the UN resolutions that were passed calling for maintenance of the peace. Despite this, Hezbollah has succeeded in rearming itself to levels beyond those prior to the war, in clear transgression of the UN resolutions. Numerous transgressions have been reported to UNIFIL by both parties. Somehow, however, the peace has held up to now. Last week's incident was the closest that the situation has come to bubbling over into a war again. This was all precipitated by something as unlikely as a tree growing along the border fence.

In last week's incident, Israeli soldiers approached the border fence with Lebanon with the intention of trimming back a tree growing along the fence. The gardening activity had been previously coordinated with UNIFIL and this had in turn been relayed to the Lebanese army. As such, all parties along the border should have anticipated the arrival of the Israeli soldiers to trim back the offending tree. Despite this fact, the work by the IDF soldiers attracted angry attention from the Lebanese army soldiers on the north side of the border, all in full view of UNIFIL soldiers stationed there. Senior Israeli officers were sent to a lookout post along that stretch of the border to oversee the events and to try to diffuse the tension. Instead, a Lebanese sniper fired at the lookout post, killing one officer and seriously wounding another. This act of aggression on the part of the Lebanese army was met with Israeli tank fire, and also an air force attack on Lebanese army positions in Southern Lebanon. Two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist were killed in the Israeli response. At this stage, the situation might easily have escalated into all-out war. Fortunately, sense prevailed and the parties stepped back from the brink. A tripartite meeting between UNIFIL, the Lebanese army and the IDF ensured that there was no further violence and war was avoided.

In analysing the situation from a slight distance, a number of questions can be asked. The first question is why the IDF was so insistent on trimming the tree that started the conflict? Surely, this seemingly unimportant activity may have been forgone in the interests of preserving peace along the border. Linked to this is the question as to why the Lebanese took such offence to the trimming of the tree? Although I don't have the official answer to this question, I can only speculate about the importance of trimming the tree. I suspect that the tree probably disrupted the clear view of the Israelis into Lebanon, and their attempts to ensure that the border area is kept clear. An alternative is that the tree may have disrupted the view by Israeli cameras into Lebanon. As such, the trimming of the tree was critical to maintaining security along the border fence. For the same reason, the Lebanese may have been unwilling to allow Israel to clear the tree.

A possibility was raised that the Lebanese sniper was a lone rogue soldier, and not acting on orders from higher up. The Lebanese government had the opportunity to disown his actions, but rather took responsibility for them and even defended the sniper fire. It is of note that Israel's traditional enemy on the Lebanese border, Hezbollah, seems not to have been involved in the incident at all. I say this somewhat half-heartedly as I understand that the Lebanese army does have fairly substantial representation from Hezbollah fighters. It may be possible that the sniper, whose shots resulted in the death of four people and serious injury to one, may have had links to Hezbollah.

To be fair to the UN on this occasion, they came out quite quickly defending Israel, and confirming that it had acted correctly. This was strongly supported by the US administration, although the European countries were auspiciously silent. The Lebanese government, by contrast, continued to claim that Israel was to blame, and that its sniper was justified in his shooting of the Israeli officer.

These events serve to remind us how ridiculous the situation is in the Middle East. It seems crazy that an event as unremarkable as trimming a tree could force countries to the brink of war. As much as Israel has managed to survive for more than 60 years, in some ways, she seems less secure now than she was on the day that independence was declared. Ultimately, the Israeli government and the IDF understands that we can only rely on ourselves for our protection. We are extremely fortunate that this point is well understood, and that the IDF and our soldiers are fully prepared for every event.

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