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Why the summer war of 2006 was unnecessary.

Summary: Israel's relatively muted reaction to its border clash with Lebanese troops on Tuesday -- in which killed an Israeli reserve battalion commander, two Lebanese soldiers and a civilian Lebanese journalist were killed -- is rather intriguing. For it provides an indication that the summer war of 2006 need not have happened. Then, as now, other options were available to Israel

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Israel's relatively muted reaction to its border clash with Lebanese troops on Tuesday -- in which killed an Israeli reserve battalion commander, two Lebanese soldiers and a civilian Lebanese journalist were killed -- is rather intriguing. For it provides an indication that the summer war of 2006 need not have happened. Then, as now, other options were available to Israel, which could have responded differently had it wished to do so. Israel evidently did not need to escalate the situation by going to war against Lebanon four years ago as it need not do so now. Rather Israel's bombardment and invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was a war of choice and of convenience. As the Winograd Committee set up by the government of Israel to investigate the causes of the war in 2006 admitted, "in making the decision to go to war, the government [of Israel] did not consider the whole range of options, including that of continuing the policy of 'containment,' or combining political and diplomatic moves with military strikes below the 'escalation level,' or military preparations without immediate military action."

The events which precipitated the conflict in 2006 -- not too dissimilar to Tuesday's events -- amounted to a frontier dispute which usually falls outside the scope of self-defense under the UN Charter. Indeed international tribunals have rarely considered frontier disputes that do not seriously threaten the territorial integrity and political independence of a state an adequate justification for armed conflict. This is even if the incident leads to the loss of life as the Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded in their Partial Award in the case between Eritrea-Ethiopia at the Claims Commission. It can also be difficult to ascertain the precise location of an armed confrontation, especially if the area in question is in a demilitarized zone where there is a sovereignty dispute.

Moreover, if a border incident can be invoked to justify war then it can also risk sparking a wider military confrontation. One need only think of the tensions between India and Pakistan, China and Taiwan, North and South Korea, Greece and Turkey, as well as Russia and Georgia to realize the danger.

Lebanon claims that the latest incident took place on its side of the border, while Israel says otherwise. As Brian Whitaker writing in The Guardian observed, the problem with the fence that the Israelis erected following their withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 was that it did not follow the border line exactly. "In places, they adjusted the route for convenience and military reasons. As a result, various pockets of what is still legally Israeli territory lie on the Lebanese side of the fence. The Israelis call them 'enclaves' and don't always see eye to eye with the Lebanese government about their extent and location."

Even if it turns out that the attack took place on Israel's side of the line, and even if the fire came from Lebanese Army units under the influence of Hizbullah, as alleged by Avital Leibovich, the Israeli military spokesperson, it would make little difference. War should always be a measure of last resort, and not the first remedy.

Israel has a history of overreacting to the slightest of provocations, which in this part of the world can quickly escalate. The latest hostilities on the border differ slightly from events four years ago, however, in that it was between Israeli and Lebanese troops, not with Hizbullah. This might be because UN Security Council Resolution 1701 called on the government of Lebanon and UNIFIL to establish an area free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons from the Blue Line to the Litani River in the hope of preventing Hizbullah from operating there. In contrast, in July 2006, Israel alleged that Hizbullah commandos had entered its territory, capturing two soldiers. This provoked Israel to send a group of soldiers into Lebanon in hot pursuit. After the Israeli soldiers crossed the Lebanese border they were killed in an ambush by Hizbullah when their tank drove over a mine. Three soldiers were killed in the initial operation, four by the mine, and another in the rescue mission. In response, Israel launched Operation Change of Direction in which Israel's then-army Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, threatened to "turn back the clock in Lebanon by 20 years."

What is not disputed is that Operation Change of Direction led to 34 days of armed conflict between Israel and Hizbullah mostly within Lebanese territory in which over 1,200 Lebanese, mostly civilians, were killed as well as 162 Israelis, of whom 119 were Israeli military personnel. According to a report by Amnesty International the Israeli Air Force destroyed 30,000 Lebanese homes, 120 bridges, 94 roads and 24 fuel stations. Israel's targets included the bridges linking the north and the south of Lebanon, all three runways of Rafik Hariri International Airport, and the offices of the Al-Manar Television. Israeli warships also barred merchant vessels from leaving or entering the coast of Lebanon. Hizbullah responded by firing thousands of rockets into northern Israel with some reaching the city of Haifa. When a ceasefire was declared on August 14, at 8 am local time, there were some 30,000 Israeli troops stationed inside Lebanon, south of the Litani River.

This time one hopes that calmer heads will prevail. The political situation is extremely tense in Lebanon at the moment. Only last week King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and President Bashar Assad of Syria met in Beirut to stress the importance of regional stability and the commitment of the Lebanese not to resort to violence. They stressed that the country's interests took precedence over sectarian interests and urged the Lebanese to resolve their issues through legal institutions. This was probably an allusion to rumors first reported in Der Spiegel and recently cited by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon -- established to try all those responsible for the assassination of former Lebanese Premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 -- is about to issue arrest warrants for "rogue members" of Hizbullah.

A new war between Israel and Hizbullah would only strengthen the position of the latter organization whose Cabinet ministers are in a rather embarrassing and precarious position at the moment having to share power in government with the son of the father that their Party of God is alleged to have killed.

Victor Kattan is a Teaching Fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. You can view his blog at

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Aug 6, 2010
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