He(brew) Said/Shi(‘ite) Said

OK, we know that a serious border incident took place yesterday between the Israeli and Lebanese armies. It involved some sort of tree [sic], and four people died: two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist who was with them, and an Israeli lieutenant-colonel. It seems the UN Security Council has even gone into session today to ponder things. But enough of all that – c’mon guys, who started it? Who was to blame?

You’ll get no credible answer asking the parties directly involved: each was quick to blame the other and to warn of “consequences” should anything further of this sort occur. Israeli officials even spoke of their troops being caught in an “ambush.”

No, the best bet for establishing further facts would seem to be finding some report from an on-the-scene but neutral observer. And we have one, from the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, namely Ulrike Putz and her article Observers puzzle over the background of Mideast firefight. I mean, “Ulrike Putz” sounds like a name you can trust, right? She’s a female, and of course she’s German, and I think those two things combined amount to a mark of journalistic objectivity as good as any other.

Plus, you don’t have to scroll down too far in her article to find bullet-points that lay everything out as clear as it can presently be ascertained:

  • Where exactly was that infamous tree at the center of all this: on Israeli or on Lebanese territory? A UN spokesperson is willing to confirm that it was on the Israeli side.
  • So who opened fire first? We get UN testimony again on this: the Lebanese did. Then the Israelis naturally reacted, but by throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, e.g. artillery, combat helicopters. But I understand Israelis tend to do that in the face of a provocation.
  • OK then: Why did all this happen? Well, there are some clues. You’ll note that among the casualties was a Lebanese journalist – well, what was he doing there just at the right place and time to watch something interesting happen? Also, according to Israeli sources the Lebanese brigade commander responsible for that sector is a Shi’ite with rather extreme anti-Israeli attitudes. So the suggestion is that he had just been waiting for an excuse to open fire on the IDF, operating entirely under his own authority. (Yes, I realize that with this analysis Frau Putz seems to go over to the Israeli side. But assessing motivations is the hardest task of all, and that’s the only source where she can get her information.)

Interestingly, up to now it has not been the Lebanese Army that the Israelis have felt they needed to worry about, but rather Hezbollah fighters. After all, they’re the ones that have the missiles to fire into Israel, and that month-long war there back in the summer of 2006 was really with them. So after the incident was over and the bodies removed, the real concern was that Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, would be annoyed enough with the incident (although it did not directly involved any of his personnel) to start attacking Israel again. Indeed, Nasrallah made a long and aggressive speech last night, in effect telling the Israelis not to try anything like that again or they’ll be very sorry, but that was as far as he went – so far.

Similarly, Frau Putz reports that the Israelis also seriously considered reacting to the incident by unleashing a general bombing campaign against Lebanese Army positions, but then decided not to. But don’t sit back and relax yet: this piece in today’s L’Express (with a couple interesting pictures of deployed IDF equipment) reports that both sides (meaning Israeli and Lebanese) are moving more troops up to the border.

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