x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

South Lebanon blast raises tensions along the border

Lebanese authorities blame an explosion in south Lebanon on an abandoned Israeli stockpile of munitions left after the 2006 summer war.

BEIRUT // Lebanese authorities yesterday blamed an explosion in south Lebanon this month on an abandoned Israeli stockpile of munitions left after the 2006 summer war, disputing the Israeli and United Nations contention that the explosion resulted from an accident at a Hizbollah storage facility.

Israeli and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) officials last week alleged that a massive explosion July 14 in the village of Khirbet Selm in southern Lebanon was caused by mishandled rockets at a Hizbollah storage facility. Under the terms of the UN-brokered ceasefire in 2006, Hizbollah was mandated to remove all of its weapons and personnel from an area south of the Litani River adjacent to Israel. Israeli and UN officials quickly accused the group of violating the terms of that agreement and a subsequent attempt to investigate the blast by UN peacekeepers turned into a violent scuffle with local villagers led by Hizbollah officials determined to keep the Unifil troops away from the scene.

A UN official said in an interview that the peacekeeping contingent suspects that the blast might have resulted from an Israeli commando raid on a Hizbollah stockpile with the intent to reveal a violation of the ceasefire arrangement but that no conclusive proof had been determined. The official, who is not authorised to speak to the media, called the allegations against both sides "very unsettling" and said the border situation was at its highest level of tension since the end of the 2006 war.

But after almost two weeks of silence, the Lebanese foreign ministry sent a letter yesterday to the UN arguing that the explosion resulted from abandoned Israeli munitions, an argument that appears to have done little to reassure either the Israeli government or the UN peacekeepers along the border region. An emergency meeting was scheduled for last night between top UN representatives, Hizbollah military and political officials and the Lebanese government in an effort to diffuse tensions.

The explosion and its aftermath is only the latest in a series of incidents this summer that have raised concerns along the border. The Lebanese military has accused the Israeli Defence Forces of breaching the border on several occasions with small commando units to help Lebanese citizens accused of spying for Israel to escape arrest, while IDF officials continue to warn that Hizbollah activity along the border is rapidly increasing and that the militant Shiite group had reconstituted its bunker defences south of the Litani River - a grave accusation seen as a possible precursor to another war.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, was reported to have noted the tensions in a meeting with expatriate Lebanese supporters and donors in a private meeting last week, according to local media accounts. According to New TV, Mr Nasrallah told the supporters that he did not mean to scare the Lebanese people but that he expected an Israeli attack sometime after the new year. He also was reported to have said that any assault on the southern suburbs of Beirut - Hizbollah's key political power base - would be responded to with assaults by the militant group on Tel Aviv, but did not specify how the group might strike from such a distance. Hizbollah was able to effectively target much of northern Israel with its rocket arsenal in 2006 but has claimed that it has since added new weaponry.

Hizbollah's media relations office refused to confirm or deny the comments. mprothero@thenational.ae