July 17, 2023
IntelBrief: Tensions Along Lebanese Border a Microcosm of Regional Flashpoints
Tensions continue to rise along the Lebanese border, centered around the town of Ghajar, a disputed area that straddles Lebanon and Syrian territory captured and occupied by Israel since 1967. Ghajar mushroomed into Lebanese territory as its population grew in the 1980s and 1990s, the same time period during which Israel occupied southern Lebanon, and remains one of a dozen or more border areas that is continuously contentious. During the July 2006 33-day conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Israelis moved into northern Ghajar and never left, building a security barrier around the territory and prompting accusations of annexation. As Israelis constructed the security barrier, Hezbollah set up tents in nearby Shebaa Farms, prompting Israeli concerns. Shebaa Farms is another of the disputed border areas that serve as a flashpoint for potential conflict. The commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, passed on an Israeli request that Hezbollah remove any tents in the area, while Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib demanded that Israel withdraw from Ghajar. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah accused Israel of attempting to annex Ghajar and vowed not to cede an inch of Lebanese territory. Some of the recent tensions could be about each side’s attempt to improve their respective leverage in the lead-up to the UNIFIL mandate renewal next month.
The tensions spilled into the open recently when three Hezbollah members were wounded by Israeli fire near the border. The skirmish occurred on the day that marked the 17-year anniversary of Hezbollah’s 2006 clash with Israel. Israel asserts that an anti-tank missile was fired from the area, while Hezbollah claims it shot down an Israeli drone around the same time. Multiple groups operate around the Golan Heights area, and the potential for miscommunication remains high. There are numerous points of tension in areas dotting the border between Israel and Lebanon, any one of which could devolve into more intense fighting, as has occurred on several occasions over the past year. What has seemed to be unfolding more recently has been a sort of controlled escalation, deterring all sides from a more prolonged conflagration. The growing concern is that even what might begin as a seemingly minor incident could give way to all-out conflict, a situation most of the belligerents would like to avoid. Amos Hochstein, the U.S. special envoy and coordinator for international energy affairs who helped shepherd through a maritime deal in the region, is attempting to help mediate. Hochstein met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to discuss the situation just last week.
The confluence of disputed territory between Lebanon, Syria, and Israel is yet another flashpoint in what could become a multi-front conflict for Israel, which has been battling Palestinian militants in the West Bank and Gaza. Fighting between Israel and Gaza-based militants raged in May, part of the continuing ebb and flow of conflict in the region. Israel is also embattled on the home front, as domestic protests push back against a right-wing government attempting to overhaul the country’s judicial system. Recent Israeli incursions into Jenin refugee camp resulted in clashes that killed 12 Palestinians. As part of the tit-for-tat, there was also a vehicle ramming and stabbing attack in Tel Aviv and shootings in Jewish settlements in the northern West Bank. Rockets were also fired from Gaza, where militants from Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad (PIJ) remain active. Back in April, Israel claimed that Palestinian militant groups were firing rockets from southern Lebanon and, in turn, responded with airstrikes. By most accounts, even with the recent fighting in the West Bank, Israel has attempted to limit the chances of a broader conflict, signaling to both Hezbollah and Hamas that its operations were limited in scope. But attempts to keep these groups on the sidelines may not last much longer, particularly as the situation in Ghajar heats up.
The latest skirmishes are reflective of a broader conflict occurring in the Middle East, one which stretches across borders and reflects the motivations of myriad stakeholders. Many of the militant groups in the region are backed by Iran, which continues to fight a shadow war with Israel, unfolding in different ways, including Israeli attacks against Iranian interests in Syria. With the recent Wagner Group mutiny, some analysts have speculated that Iran could look to take advantage and assert more influence in Syria, capitalizing on dysfunction in Russia to make further inroads with Assad. Following the aborted mutiny of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, several high-ranking Wagner commanders were apprehended by Russian military police and flown to Hmeimim air base in western Syria, a base that serves as Wagner’s logistics hub in the region. As has occurred in the past, what seems like an isolated flashpoint between warring groups and states in the region could spark a more widespread battle, exacerbating existing fault lines and spiraling out of control. Hezbollah is a much more potent force than it was in 2006, when its fighting prowess surprised many in the region, winning adherents across the Arab and Islamic world for its willingness to stand up to Israel and, further, for the combat skill it displayed in facing a far superior military adversary. Since the last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Iranian-sponsored Lebanese militants have received more missiles from their patron while also gaining crucial battlefield experience fighting in Syria, although that participation has also cost Hezbollah popularity in parts of the Sunni population in the Middle East that remain staunchly anti-Assad.