Ominous clouds loom over Lebanon and Israel. The two countries are technically still in a state of war, but their common borders have remained without any tension since the 2006 conflict. A UN drawn ‘blue line’ marks their borders both on land and on sea, following Israeli withdrawal from its ‘safe zone’ in southern Lebanon.
This demarcation is not definitive and requires signing as part of an eventual peace treaty between Israel and Lebanon and hence is placed under the supervision of the United Nations peacekeeping forces.
New, contentious Israeli wall
However, two issues have recently revived tension on both sides of this tenuous ‘blue line’. The first issue pertains to Israel’s ongoing construction of a ‘separation wall’. Israel gives security reasons as an excuse for the construction of this wall, which resembles the wall it built earlier in the occupied West Bank.
Israel claims that it will build the wall on its territory, but Lebanon challenges the claim and denounces the Israeli decision by calling it an “aggression’ and “provocation”. This Israeli project is being carried out unilaterally without consultation with its northern neighbor. More seriously, it comes on the heels of tension with Syria in the Golan region.
After exploiting the Syrian chaos, Iran’s revolutionary guards have come closer to Israeli bordersChristian Chesnot
Fiddling close to the ‘blue line’ is like playing with fire. Is Israel trying to set a trap for Hezbollah in southern Lebanon by provoking it? One cannot discount the possibility.
For its part, the line drawn by the United Nations itself has many flaws. It cuts the village of Al-Ghajar in half, and its demarcation is unclear in Shebaa Farms. Then there are issues like it running through the tomb of a Muslim saint, Sheikh Abbad! However, this ‘technical fence’ in UN jargon is being hailed as having put a freeze over the conflict.
Energy exploration rights
The seeds of a future conflict between Israel and Lebanon are not only sown over land, but are spread under the sea as well, as the ‘blue line’ also dives into the Mediterranean Sea. However, Lebanon has just signed its first exploration contract with an international consortium of French, Russian and Italian companies.
The problem is that one of the exploration blocks (Number 9) lies at the cusp of the Israeli maritime zone. As a result, Israel has started crying foul and got the chance to challenge Lebanese energy aspirations.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was recently in Beirut to defuse this incipient crisis, but both parties are sticking to their proverbial guns, unwilling to compromise.
The IRGC menace
Behind these disputes around the ‘blue line’ and its energy issues lurks the shadow of Hezbollah. The socalled ‘Party of God’ has even threatened to attack Israel’s offshore platforms in the Mediterranean.
Whether it carries out the threat or not, these statements cause consternation in Israel, given the fact that Hezbollah has significantly strengthened its military arsenal since the 2006 war as well as its combat capability after its experience on the Syrian battlefield.
Israel’s neurosis can also be linked to the latest developments in the Syrian war. It is an open secret that after exploiting the Syrian chaos, Iran’s revolutionary guards have come closer to Israeli borders. Israel had thought it had an understanding with Russia over denying Iranians access to regions south of Damascus. The reality is probably far more complex and nuanced.
It is these aggravations that might have spilled over to cause the present spat over the ‘blue line’.
Christian Chesnot is grand reporter at Radio France in Paris in charge of the Middle East affairs. He has been based as correspondent in Cairo and Amman. He has written several books on Palestine, Iraq, Syria and the Gulf. Chesnot tweets @cchesnot.