Lebanese mostly unmoved by brief border confrontation with Israel
BEIRUT - Lebanon and Israel seemed on the brink of war when Iran-backed Hezbollah fired anti-tank rockets at an Israeli military vehicle, sparking short-lived cross-border attacks.
The confrontation September 1 was somewhat expected after Hezbollah vowed to retaliate following the crash a week earlier of two Israeli drones in southern Beirut, a stronghold for the Shia party.
The incident exposed the political divide in the country as a mixture of defiance and fear prevailed.
While many residents of border villages packed their belongings and headed north fearing an escalation, others appeared unmoved and some filmed the aftermath of the attacks standing on the demarcation line separating Israel and Lebanon.
“Israel was dropping firebombs on the border area and the people were watching its manoeuvres as if nothing has happened,” said Sobhi, a south Lebanon resident who asked to be identified by his first name.
“I believe that the Israelis learnt a lesson. You hit me, I hit you back, one for one, that is the equation,” he said.
With memories of the massive 2006 war still vivid, many dreaded the clash could escalate into a wide-scale confrontation. Expatriates who returned to Lebanon for the summer interrupted their holiday and hastened their departure from Lebanon.
“My daughter and her husband left as soon as they could. They were supposed to stay until September 12 but feared they would be stuck here if the situation deteriorated,” said Nadia Ghaddar, whose daughter lives in Holland.
“They had to change all their travel plans to be able to catch a flight back to Amsterdam. All flights were booked, obviously others wanted to get out as quickly as possible.”
In July 2006, Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers in disputed territory between the two countries, sparking an Israeli offensive that killed 1,191 Lebanese civilians. The fighting lasted 33 days. Despite their deep hostility, the two sides have largely refrained from direct fighting since then.
The brief exchange September 1 ended within two hours and it was largely contained to the border area near the village of Maroun al-Ras, indicating that neither side was keen on war.
“What happened was a response by Hezbollah to the drone incident. It was somehow expected and I believe that there will be no sequels or further escalation because it is not in Israel’s interest, at least until after the (Israeli) elections,” said political analyst Samah Idriss.
“Hezbollah’s retaliation was explicitly covered by the state’s top officials who considered the drone attack as blunt aggression against Lebanon. As a military resistance movement, Hezbollah does not need permission from the government to respond to aggression.”
Lebanese President Michel Aoun blasted the attack as “a declaration of war” against Lebanon and Prime Minister Saad Hariri solicited help from the United States and France to rein in Israel and said Lebanon would file a complaint of aggression with the UN Security Council.
The incident brought to the forefront the controversy over a Lebanese national defence strategy that would restore to the state its strategic decision on war and peace. Hezbollah’s rivals want to confine all military weapons to the Lebanese state and place Hezbollah’s arsenal under the control of the Lebanese Army. Pro-Hezbollah groups stress that the party’s military wing is needed to deter Israeli aggression and liberate occupied Lebanese territory in the Shabaa Farms area.
The limited flare-up had no significant effect on Lebanon’s stumbling economy.
“The Israeli strike was not really felt in the market. Eurobonds prices fell slightly on the same day but returned to normal quickly,” said economist Ghazi Wazneh. “What happened is over and both sides returned to previous rules of engagement.”
“Internal political instability and divisions have been most damaging to the Lebanese economy. The most important thing at present is to introduce the long-delayed reforms to fight corruption and tax evasion, public waste and arbitrary employment in the public administration, et cetera.” Wazneh said.
Lebanese officials across the political spectrum endorsed an economic blueprint on September 2 that includes measures to cut state spending and boost revenues for three years.
In Maroun al-Ras, residents inspected their tobacco and olive fields, some of which were burned by the Israeli fire. Ahmad Alawiyeh, a 45-year-old merchant, was in the village with his son checking his land near the fence. His field didn’t sustain much damage because he hadn’t planted tobacco or olive trees, like two adjacent plots.
“This is a victory and pride for us,” he told the Associated Press, referring to Hezbollah’s attack on Israel.
Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.