GAZA CITY // The bloody firefight that claimed four lives along the Israeli-Lebanese border last week does not represent closer coordination between the Lebanese army and the Shiite militant group Hizbollah, despite Israeli accusations to the contrary, according to top officials in the Lebanese military and Hizbollah.
Immediately after the fighting, in which three Lebanese and one Israeli were killed, Israeli officials suggested there was cooperation between Hizbollah militants, who have controlled south Lebanon for more than a decade, and the Lebanese army, which only began regular patrols of the area in the wake of the 2006 war. "We know that any piece of information that goes to the Lebanese army immediately goes to Hizbollah's hands," said Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the US, in an interview last week. He added that in the eyes of Israel's military, the distinction between the two has become "cloudy".
But top-ranking officials in the Lebanese military and security establishment denied that the Lebanese military has operational ties with Hizbollah and described last Tuesday's incident as a legitimate attempt by the armed forces of a sovereign nation to defend the country's borders, even if the exact location of the border remains in dispute in some areas. "The decision to open fire on the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] was taken by an experienced platoon commander who was not only acting within his authority as the senior officer on the scene, but he was following long-standing orders to defend Lebanese territory," said a senior official in Lebanese military intelligence with extensive experience working alongside both Hizbollah and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil).
"The officer had no reason to even call his superiors, let alone inform Hizbollah," the official said, indicating that the Lebanese army has grown tired of repeated Israeli violations of Lebanese territory and the perception internationally that it is subservient to Hizbollah and requires protection from Israel, from the militants and Unifil. Israeli forces and aeroplanes regularly enter Lebanese territory under the guise of intelligence collection.
"It was going to happen eventually because of these violations," the officer said, adding: "Why last Tuesday? Maybe it was really hot and people are just tired of being ignored. But it was his - and our - right to defend Lebanon." Another source close to the Lebanese military leadership said the incident sent a double message, not just to Israel's military but also to Hizbollah, that the Lebanese army is the nation's military force and will protect its borders. Otherwise, he said, "they're just traffic cops".
With the US military having supplied nearly a billion dollars in military aid since 2005 to upgrade the capabilities of the Lebanese army, Israeli accusations that Hizbollah and the Lebanese army coordinated their operations against Israeli forces are seen as a potential problem by staunch American supporters of Israel's security, even if the Lebanese army is gaining some credibility as a legitimate authority in southern Lebanon.
"Israel largely supports the idea of a strong Lebanese armed forces that can render Hizbollah irrelevant," said Andrew MacDonald Exum, of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank. "But if Israel decides that the Lebanese armed forces have become a belligerent actor, its allies in the US Congress will, not without some justification, start asking why the United States is arming an adversary of our closest ally in the region."
According to the Lebanese military intelligence official, the idea that the Lebanese army would not coordinate some of its activities with Hizbollah is ridiculous considering the number of armed groups engaged in operations in the south. "Of course Hizbollah often come directly from these villages, so there is obviously an informal line of communication both with them, the army and Unifil," the official said.
"But Israeli claims that Hizbollah instigated this fight through sympathetic officers are ridiculous. The officer who gave the command to fire is a Sunni officer from Akkar," he added, alluding to a stronghold of anti-Hizbollah sentiment in northern Lebanon. What US policymakers and top Israeli military officials need to recognise, said another expert in Lebanese military affairs, is that even if Hizbollah and the Lebanese army swing between unofficial communication and even open rivalry as the protectors of Lebanon, they both often see Israel as a threat to the safety of the country.
"It's definitely true that within the army there is an ideology that Israel is the enemy, and it's Israel that has to be prevented from attacking. So maybe in that way there is a kind of ideological complicity" between Hizbollah and Lebanon's military, said Sahar Atrache, of the International Crisis Group. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Joshua Hersh in Beirut