Lebanon is a country that has come so far since the troubled times of its recent past. A lengthy civil war which wasted just as much in human blood as it did in years of time. Much of what was damaged during the Lebanese civil war, which including the years of Israeli occupation of Lebanon, has been replaced or rebuilt, yet, the country is still plagued to this day by troubles along its southern border which it shares with Israel and Syria.
Lebanon’s southern border is a largely disputed stretch of land which in part connects Lebanon, Syria and Israel altogether. The Shebaa Farms are a well-known disputed area which is considered an Israeli occupied territory by Lebanese and Syrian’s. The Golan Heights is another example, a rocky plateau in south-western Syria which Israel occupied following the Arab – Israel ‘6 Day-War’ in 1967. Israel later unilaterally annexed the Golan Heights in 1981 and the move was never recognised internationally – and so the dispute continues to this day.
“Routine” border violations
The political disputes of this region are merely the context for a much more disconcerting situation along the border. The almost daily illegal breaches of Lebanese sovereignty by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) which has, at times, risked pushing the region into a new bloody confrontation. The numerous breaches come in many forms; the sight of Israeli military aircraft looming above towns and villages of South Lebanon has become a well-known phenomenon among the local inhabitants but the IDF also conducts regular ground and naval intrusions into Lebanese territory in clear defiance of two United Nations Security Council Resolutions, 425 and 1701.
To bring you an even greater idea for the sheer scale of the number of regular illegal intrusions committed by the IDF we should take a look at this months reported infringements as an example: so far this month the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) have registered at least seven severe incidents of Israeli military movements which have defied Lebanese territorial integrity between 4th – 16th October. These incidents include an IDF tractor vandalizing vegetation on the Lebanese side of the border, an IDF naval vessel entering Lebanese waters for a period of 25mins before departing back and an armed five-man IDF patrol which walked at least 50 meters into Lebanese territory and attempted to “kidnap” an unarmed Lebanese shepherd before exiting back across the border. These examples may appear inconsequential but on such a volatile border these small incidents can bubble up fast and erupt into something much more disastrous – a scenario the IDF is very much aware of.
On Monday the Israel air force breached Lebanese airspace a total of three times throughout the day, one of the morning breaches was a “routine” IDF reconnaissance flight over Lebanon that quickly escalated into a mini clash as a Syrian anti-aircraft missile launcher fired at the Israeli spy plane. The missile – an SA5 surface-to-air rocket – failed to hit its target, and, according to an Israeli military spokesperson, the anti-aircraft battery located 30 miles from Damascus was then hit by separate Israeli jets, “incapacitating” the launcher with four strikes.
This is the first time Israel has been challenged by Syria while spying on Lebanon since the Syrian war began. A clear sign from Syria that a day is coming when Israel won’t be free to violate Syrian & Lebanese sovereignty without retaliation. A freedom which Israel took full advantage of during the Syrian war, striking targets with complete insusceptibility, including senior Hezbollah figures and arms shipments, Iranian IRGC members and the Syrian Arab Army.
These types of highly combustible incidents have been allowed to escalate, becoming commonplace in the Levant, as the international community does little to rein in Israel’s intrusive behaviour while simultaneously adding fuel to the fire in conflict zones such as Syria & Iraq. The Lebanese, Syrian & Israeli border dispute has become a much greater cause for concern in recent years as the list of despicable offences continues to grow in number and rigorousness. In all honesty, many of the clashes could be avoided if the IDF choose to de-escalate its activity along the border region but has instead chosen to involve itself in Syrian & Lebanese affairs.
The IDF have even been so bold as to criticise the UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) for not confronting Hezbollah in Lebanon. The IDF’s aggressive policy of intimidating local Lebanese civilians and antagonising the LAF, UN peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) and (most notably) the Hezbollah could lead to a new, much more gruesome, confrontation causing me to wonder if Israel really does want a new war. The last war fought between Hezbollah and Israel was in July 2006 which began as a result of long escalating IDF vs Hezbollah border skirmishes, eventually, leading to a full-blown war between the IDF & Hezbollah.
The IDF attempted to defeat Hezbollah militarily as it had done to the Palestinian PLO in Lebanon back in 1982 which evolved from the initial Israeli invasion to become an occupation of Southern Lebanon which went on to inspire the local Shia resistance – and so, Hezbollah was then born. The IDF’s anti-PLO objectives in the 82 war succeeded, Arafat lost his power in Lebanon and the PLO never returned to the South, but their similar plans in the July 2006 war against the Lebanese Shia Hezbollah failed miserably, only leading to death and destruction for both sides and a revitalized reputation for the Hezbollah.
Following that dreadful war, Lebanon’s people have now to live with the constant fear of low flying Israeli military aircraft posturing in a provocative fashion; emitting sonic booms that frighten and confuse local civilians who all live in fear that a new deadly war may once again commence. A war which several senior Israeli figures (including IDF Military chiefs and the Israeli Minister of Defence) claim will target civilian areas and vital Lebanese infrastructure across the country – which was also the case in the 2006 war.
The Lebanese government continues to respond to the endless list of border violations with an equally endless list of formal complaints to the UN about the IDF’s behaviour. The UN can do little except officially record the grievances and “investigate” the claims but no real action is ever taken to hold the IDF to account, and so, the violations continue.
Despite the UN’s best efforts the problem continues and with the promise to worsen as the war in Syria calms down leading to Israeli fears that Iran will expand its presence in Syria and look to challenge Israel for its dominance on the Golan & the Shebaa farms, however, the border dispute problem doesn’t only apply to the land but also to the sea as Lebanon and Israel now both look to the riches promised by the Mediterranean for the future prosperity of their nations – leading to yet more escalations coinciding with provocative political posturing between the Lebanese & Israeli’s.
The Mediterranean dispute
Lebanon and Israel are currently locked in a dispute over maritime boundaries. The 1949 Israel-Lebanon armistice line serves as the de facto land border between the two countries, and Lebanon claims roughly 330 square miles of waters that overlap with areas claimed by Israel based in part on differences in interpretation of relative points on the armistice line. The disputed stretch of water fanning out from the Lebanese coast towards Cypriot seas has been discovered to have huge reserves of natural gas and potential oil reserves below the seabed. Just another area of fierce contention between Lebanon and Israel which, following the estimates of the potential value, could lead to a new war according to some. Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, has described the maritime territory as “the Shebaa Farms of the sea”.
“If (Israel) continues with its expansionist plot through the government and the Knesset, that means that the spark of war is looming on the horizon,” Nabih Berri gave these comments to Lebanese journalists following news that Israel planned a complete annexation of the disputed sea area if the Knesset passed a new bill which lay official Israeli claim to the area – the bill would be recognised by Israel only, no one else.
Nabih Berri continued to say, ”We, on our side in Lebanon, we will not be quiet and we will not accept any compromise on our people’s rights to these resources, which have a degree of holiness to us.”
Lebanon is in desperate need for energy, a new industry to create jobs and a source of consistent revenue – all these things could be solved by the promise of lucrative natural gas fields off Lebanon’s coast but should Hezbollah begin to receive a profit from any future gas industry then Israel could find that intolerable. Similarly, if Israel does follow through with an annexation of disputed areas then the Lebanese may see it as a duty to respond with force to protect what Lebanon’s government considers its people’s birthright.
Israel has already begun to drill for gas and in 2010 entered into an agreement with Cyprus that draws a specific maritime border delineation point relative to the 1949 armistice line leading to major protests by the Lebanese. It has been estimated that the gas reserves in that area could be so lucrative that Israel, which has a naturally small demand for energy, could become an exporter of gas in the future creating huge new revenue and boosting the country’s independence. Lebanon has been left behind in this respect due, in part, to a long-lasting political deadlock and alleged government mismanagement of the affair. Now that Lebanon has a new President the country is looking towards the future and sees the Mediterranean’s gas and oil as a ticket to success. This would explain one reason why President Aoun has been so eager to move the Syrian refugees out of Lebanon, by any and all means, in order to free up Lebanese resources so they can pursue their gas drilling ambitions.
Lebanon currently consumes mostly oil and has no gas consumption whatsoever. If Lebanon did one day begin to produce its own gas it could replace the oil consumptions monopoly as oil makes up 93% of all the Lebanese energy consumption material with only coal and renewerble energy making up the remaining 7% – gas is cleaner to produce than oil and could help Lebanon to hit environmental targets while a revival in Lebanon’s domestic energy industry would simultaneously provide a solution to Lebanon’s crippling energy cut-outs that plague Lebanese daily life.
President Aoun has wasted no time in kickstarting the process. This month the Petroleum Administration in the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water has already announced that an international consortium has won two licenses for exploration in two of Lebanon’s maritime blocks, zones 4 and 9 (Zone 9, located off the coast of Southern Lebanon, is one of the blocks which borders the disputed triangle zone which Israel lays claim too).
Israel has yet to decide on its reaction to the latest news and as Lebanon races to catch up with its regional gas rivals, the possibility of a new dimension to the heated disputes between Lebanon and Israel. Judging by the IDF’s behaviour on land and in the air, we will likely see Israel continue to push boundaries in the sea. The key difference between the dispute on land compared to the dispute in the Mediterranean is money – an element which history proves can easily drive countries to war.
Syria has sent a significant signal to the IDF by targeting an Israeli spy plane in Lebanon that a day is coming that Lebanon & Syria will, once again, not tolerate large-scale Israeli encroachment on their assets and will be willing to retaliate to any violations of new red lines – not just Syrian territory but Lebanese territory too. If the IDF wants to continue pushing boundaries – including in the Mediterranean – they will risk an escalation which will include Damascus and by default Tehran too. The IDF’s “routine” in Lebanon is no more. Russia shares good relations with Damascus and Tel Aviv so won’t enter into any future clash between the two, especially if it is just a Hezbollah – IDF skirmish but the possibility of further gas field discoveries could lead to more boundaries being tested risking further complications on the land, the sea and in the air.