Lebanese-Israeli Clashes: What Really Happened

Clashes on Tuesday between the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) resulted in the death of two Lebanese soldiers, a journalist, and an Israeli officer. The Lebanese believe that Israel caused the incident in the hopes of "indulging Hezbollah" in war, or simply to undermine the stability as envisioned by the Lebanese-Saudi-Syrian summit held in Beirut last week.

Looking at the incident, it is hard to believe that Israel entered this altercation with the intent of starting a war. According to the narrative of both sides, Israel sent a crane that lifted a soldier, who in turn reached out to cut a tree across the security fence between the two countries. To the Lebanese troops in the area, the Israeli intrusion merited warning shots in the direction of Israelis. Next thing we know, a mini war had started and later ended after intensive international mediation. Israel's sworn enemy, Hezbollah, stayed out of the debacle. It remains hard to believe that Israel intended to provoke the LAF or Hezbollah with a crane, a soldier and a saw. It is most probable that the Lebanese troops - acting spontaneously - fired at the Israelis and caused a confrontation.

A few questions should be asked here.

First, in minor intrusions in the past over strips of land (the LAF later pronounced Tuesday's land as disputed between the two countries), the LAF often reported violations to the UN Interim Force in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL), who would in turn determine whether Israel was in violation of the blue line and demand, accordingly, that Israel respect the border.

Yet this time, the Lebanese troops opened fire, seemingly spontaneously. Knowing the LAF, it is difficult to believe that the soldiers would open fire without clearance from their command. In all likeliness, it was the LAF command that decided, unlike in previous situations, to fire at the Israelis.

But why did the LAF change its behavior? The most probable answer is what the Levantine culture knows as a "security message."

Over the past week, Saudi King Abdullah visited Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus. The two then made their way to Beirut where they met with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The theme of the mini-summit was to the effect that Saudi Arabia was determined to maintain stability in Lebanon.

The parties who disagree with Riyadh and its vision for a non-combatant Lebanon, namely Hezbollah, Iran and Syria (playing a double face like always), want to show Riyadh who is boss in Lebanon. Thus, Hezbollah had to remind the Saudis that it was the party that called the shots in Lebanon.

And how can Hezbollah call the shots without going to a full scale war with Israel? Enter the new behavior of the LAF command, who has been repeatedly accused of taking orders from Hezbollah especially when the army watched the group kill supporters of its rivals in Beirut in May 2008.

Today, while Hezbollah rearms itself and deploys in the territory south of the Litani River (according to public statements from Hezbollah officials and in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1701), the Lebanese army looks the other way.

With a complicit Lebanese army, it was easy for Hezbollah to cause a stir on the border with Israel, without getting involved. The shakeup was a Hezbollah message to Saudi Arabia and its Prime Minister Saad Hariri that in Lebanon, the group alone calls the shots.

The history of "security messages" in Lebanon supports the above argument.

In 2000, two rockets hit Future TV, owned by late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was at loggerheads with Syria and its protégés over the coming parliamentary elections. After checking out the damage, Hariri said: "I received the message." In 2005, Hariri was killed. In 2002, late Lebanese lawmaker and publisher of Annahar daily, Gebran Tueni, gave an interview in which he heavily criticized the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. A few days later, Annahar's security personnel arrested a man with an open hand grenade in his palm inside the newspaper's building. The man had threatened to cut his hand's veins and thus cause an explosion. That was a "security message" to Tueni. In 2005, Tueni was also killed.

The UN Interim Force in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL) was also targeted and lost a few of its personnel in roadside bombs. Anyone who knows anything about Levantine politics can say with certainty that these bombings were "messages" from "whoever controls southern Lebanon" to the country whose troops were targeted.

In Lebanon, Iranian proxy Hezbollah calls the shots, no matter how many summits Saudi Arabia holds for the stability and prosperity of Lebanon.

Tuesday's clashes between Lebanon and Israel should be viewed through this prism.

Assumptions that a full scale war between Hezbollah and Israel is brewing is mere pundit talk.