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Old Games, New Rules: Conflict on the Israel-Lebanon Border

To access the Executive Summary of this report in Arabic, please click here.

The Israel-Lebanon border is the only Arab-Israeli front to have witnessed continuous violence since the late 1960s and it could become the trigger for a broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, in recent times it has been the object of very little international focus. Amidst raging warfare between Israelis and Palestinians and mounting war-talk surrounding Iraq, there is scant energy to devote to a conflict that, since Israel’s May 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon, appears devoid of justification and which neither of its principal protagonists seems interested in escalating. But ignoring it could be costly. Neither its roots nor its implications have ever been purely local. Israel’s withdrawal has lessened the immediate costs but in some ways rendered the problem more unpredictable. Stripped of its cover as an Israeli-Lebanese border dispute, it has laid bare both the underlying Israeli-Syrian confrontation and Iran’s involvement in the conflict.

The past two years have seen a proliferation of small disputes over territory and resources along the “Blue Line,” the demarcation line between the two countries drawn by the UN in 2000 to confirm that Israel’s withdrawal complied with relevant UN Security Council resolutions. In other circumstances, disputes of this nature could be managed or even resolved with a modicum of ease. Yet in the absence of a comprehensive peace deal between Syria and Israel, southern Lebanon will remain both an instrument of and a possible trigger for broader regional disputes. Concrete, practical steps are urgently needed to minimise the risk of a dangerous conflagration.

Lebanon is not a major actor in Arab politics. Even its most potent political/military actor, Hizbollah, though it can inflict heavy casualties in Israel, has only a few hundred full time fighters. But Lebanon’s role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has principally been as a theatre in which various actors – mainly Syria, Iran, Israel, Hizbollah and the Palestinians – believe they can wage surrogate battles. Hizbollah and southern Lebanon in particular gained importance by becoming ideal proxies for the larger regional conflict, inflicting and absorbing military blows intended by and for others. Paradoxically, it is precisely Lebanon’s relative military insignificance that has made it and continues to make it so volatile and crucial an actor. Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, little has changed in this respect.

Since Israel’s withdrawal, the casualty rate has been dramatically reduced and the burden of the occupation lifted for both Lebanese and Israelis. Many factors that helped contain the conflict during the years of the occupation remain, notably that the protagonists, each for its own reason, do not appear to desire a full-scale war. Moreover, UN personnel and principally Western embassies continue to encourage restraint. As a result, occasional border skirmishes so far have been limited and localised.

However, the withdrawal also has introduced a dangerous sense of uncertainty. Two flashpoints have special potential to trigger major confrontation. First, Syria and Lebanon insist Israel still occupies a 25-square km. area, the Shab’a Farms, which, on flimsy evidence and despite considerable proof to the contrary, they claim to be Lebanese. Over the last two years, the area has seen repeated exchanges of fire. Twice Israeli reprisals have hit Syrian military installations deep inside Lebanon. Secondly, there is the lingering dispute over water rights in the Hasbani River and the adjacent Wazzani Springs. Israel insists that Lebanon’s decision to install pumping installations infringes on its rights to use shared water resources, threatening a forceful reaction and reminding Lebanon that Arab attempts to divert the sources of the Jordan River were a factor leading to the 1967 War.

The Blue Line and the Hasbani River contain ample sources of friction but the reasons for continued tension evidently lie elsewhere. The withdrawal removed the most obvious and apparent source of tension (Israel’s two-decades old occupation of Lebanese territory) without removing its underlying cause (the Israeli-Syrian conflict). In addition, it terminated both the old rules of the game and its accompanying international mechanism of conflict management (the Israel-Lebanon Monitoring Group, ILMG) without introducing alternative rules, redlines or mechanisms. Syria still wants to maintain tension on the border to remind Israel that their conflict continues and to retain leverage in future negotiations over the Golan Heights. But Israel’s willingness to limit its military responses to Lebanese targets has been reduced now that its occupation of Lebanese territory is over, bringing the conflict closer to its Syrian-Israeli-core.

Other factors also exacerbate tension. Lack of a realistic short-term prospect even for negotiations on that core dispute coupled with its sense of isolation give Damascus motive to find ways to bring itself back to Israeli and U.S. attention. As a result of its own regional calculations and the hybrid nature of its leadership, Iran remains an unpredictable and potentially menacing actor. The conviction shared by Prime Minister Sharon and high echelons of Israel’s military establishment that Israel’s deterrence credibility has been badly eroded – by absorbing Iraq’s Scud attacks in 1991, unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, and continued negotiations with the Palestinians after the intifadah began – means Israel is less likely to show restraint in the face of provocation from Hizbollah. Nor can one exclude that Israel might seize upon Hizbollah activity or a U.S. attack against Iraq to try to deal Hizbollah a crushing blow. At the same time, mounting Palestinian casualties, and the reoccupation of West Bank cities have further radicalised Hizbollah and increased its desire to take action against Israel, while the possibility of war against Iraq only further inflames its rank and file. U.S. allegations of Hizbollah involvement in global terrorism and hints it may be Washington’s next target arguably moderate the group’s actions but could also could produce the opposite effect or embolden Israel to take matters into its hands.

Domestic interests may well have compelled Hizbollah to reduce its military operations in southern Lebanon but the party enjoys a special status and a degree of insularity vis-à-vis Lebanon's society and political system enabling it to carry out actions against Israel despite local criticism. Both Beirut and the international community missed the chance of Israel’s withdrawal to turn the South into a populous, economically active area. The constraints everyday civilian life and economic activity should present failed to materialise, enabling the belligerents to treat the area less as a hindrance to military activity than as a relatively cost-free shooting range.

The international community also should reiterate and emphasise its two-pronged position on the Blue Line: first, that it cannot suffer any challenge; but secondly, that it is not a final boundary but only a temporary point of reference to be adhered to while efforts for a comprehensive peace are undertaken. Moreover, international mediation mechanisms tend to be ad hoc, set in motion only when escalation threatens.

The list of possible catastrophic scenarios is long – for example, a deadly Hizbollah attack followed by Israeli retaliation against Syrian targets, then ever stronger counteractions as Syria seeks to maintain its credibility and Israel its deterrence. Any military act risks spiralling out of control, as one cannot be sure of the opponent’s resilience or intent.

In the long term, conflict management cannot substitute for a comprehensive solution of the wider conflict in which Israel, Syria and Lebanon have been embroiled for more than 50 years but that is not immediately realistic. Nor is a total cessation of hostilities. Still, the conflict in southern Lebanon must be addressed. This report outlines a variety of concrete, practical steps that can diminish the impact of the underlying political dispute, bolster constraints, amplify and institutionalise international mediation and so minimise the risks of escalation that could spiral out of control.


On containing and defusing the conflict

To members of the UN Security Council and the wider international community:

1. Seek to minimise the impact of the underlying conflict by:

(a) inviting Syria and Lebanon to participate or assist in any mechanisms aimed at resuscitating the Middle East peace process, for example by institutionalising their consultative role in talks held by the Quartet and setting a clear framework for negotiations and a timetable for their completion. The U.S. in particular should engage Syria on this and other issues, such as the future of Iraq;

(b) stating publicly and emphatically that while the Blue Line is not a final demarcation of the international border, it is the internationally recognised reference point for purposes of compliance with UNSCR 425, and challenges to it are unacceptable;

(c) while not endorsing or legitimising the perpetuation of any part of the Israel-Lebanon-Syria border conflict, but recognising that in the short term achieving a complete cessation of hostilities is not realistic, continuing to work to contain such conflict as does occur to the Shab’a farms area;

(d) while meeting all existing financial commitments to UNIFIL so it can satisfy conflict management and military observation needs, reduce its size to a level that will induce the Lebanese government to send its regular troops to the southern border; and

(e) initiating regular talks between, on the one hand, U.S., EU and Russian ambassadors in Lebanon and the UN Personal Representative for Southern Lebanon, and, on the other hand, representatives of the Lebanese and Syrian governments to discuss developments in the conflict in southern Lebanon.

To Hizbollah:

2. In the spirit of the April 1996 understanding, refrain from carrying out or supporting attacks against civilians and publicly so declare.

3. Fully respect the Blue Line as the provisional demarcation of the Israel-Lebanon border; insofar as Hizbollah challenges the Blue Line, under no circumstances should it further extend the conflict beyond the Shab’a Farms area.

To the government of Israel:

4. In the spirit of the 1996 understanding, refrain from carrying out attacks against civilians and seek to limit the conflict to the Shab’a Farms area.

5. Cease intrusive violations of Lebanese airspace and territorial waters by the Israeli air force and navy in accordance with UNSCR 425.

To the government of Lebanon:

6. Continue the process of deploying the army throughout southern Lebanon to the Blue Line in accordance with UNSCR 425 and subsequent resolutions.

To the governments of Israel, Lebanon and Syria:

7. Publicly recognise the Blue Line for the purpose of verifying compliance with Resolution 425 while, in the case of Israel, underscoring that this will not affect the final location of the border to be established in future peace negotiations.

To the governments of Lebanon and Israel:

8. Resolve peacefully the dispute over water resources derived from the Hasbani River and Wazzani Springs, with Lebanon in the first instance coordinating any initiative regarding use with the UN Personal Representative for South Lebanon, the U.S., and the bilateral European Partnership Commissions to prevent any misreading of intentions.

To the governments of Syria and Iran:

9. Refrain from any action that encourages, supports or endorses Hizbollah attacks against Israeli civilians or that further extend the conflict beyond the Shab’a farms and press Hizbollah to cease such attacks.

10. Do not provide or help Hizbollah obtain weapons that can be used to extend the conflict, not least longer-range rockets or missiles, and publicly inform the Security Council of that commitment.

To the government of Syria:

11. Allow Lebanon to undertake the measures mentioned in these recommendations in accordance with Syria’s commitment to Lebanon’s sovereignty as stated in the Ta’if Accord.

On creating economic conditions for conflict prevention

To the government of Lebanon:

12. Accelerate reconstruction efforts in the South by:

(a) strengthening and reforming local institutions of government, initially by releasing fees due from centrally kept funds earmarked for the municipalities;

(b) establishing a "Permanent Conference for Development in the South" to supervise and coordinate reconstruction and provide a platform for improving sectarian relations;

(c) pressing for the international donors conference to be convened urgently; and

(d) establishing an "International Solidarity Fund for Development in the South" to solicit donations from Lebanese expatriates and be managed by a new Ministry of the South and/or the UNDP Coordination Forum for southern Lebanon, in coordination with the World Bank.

13. Reverse and stop handing out sentences that prevent convicted SLA members from returning to their homes and instead introduce sentences that include community service, thus encouraging local projects and the former convicts’ reintegration.

To other members of the international community:

14. Support efforts at economic reconstruction in the South by:

(a) urgently convening the international donors conference. Assistance should focus on schools and irrigation infrastructure;

(b) indicating interest in expanding economic relations when security conditions permit; the EU should use the particular leverage of its Partnership with Lebanon to engage in a dialogue on the economic and fiscal crisis;

(c) improving coordination between individual development projects by taking part in the UNDP Coordination Forum and following its guidance regarding international assistance; and

(d) supporting the demining process without insisting that Lebanon first join the Mine Ban Treaty.

To the World Bank:

15. Conduct a comprehensive survey of the economic consequences of continuing conflict, or the threat thereof, in southern Lebanon, including by polling expatriate businessmen on what it will take for them to return and Arab and other international businessmen regarding the impact on investment decisions.

To Hizbollah:

16. Advocate in parliament a “Permanent Conference for Development in the South” to supervise and coordinate government reconstruction efforts, in accordance with the party’s own proposals.

On creating political conditions for conflict prevention

To the government of Lebanon:

17. Give independent and moderate candidates with strong grassroots support in southern Lebanon a fair chance by respecting Ta’if Accord and constitutional stipulations for parliamentary elections based on the smaller constituency of the single governorate (muhafaza), not the merged governorates of Sidon and Nabatiya.

18. Increase Hizbollah's stake in the South's development by offering it a government portfolio (a new "Ministry for the South").

To the government of Syria:

19. Allow Hizbollah to run independently in the South, rather than having it run on a joint list with Amal. This will enable Hizbollah’s share of parliamentary seats to more accurately reflect its popularity.

To other members of the international community:

20. Increase the role and voice of constituencies in southern Lebanon by:

(a) using the demining process to establish contacts with local municipalities and notables and initiating debate on the economic costs of the continuing conflict at the Blue Line; and

(b) carrying out development projects in direct cooperation with municipalities.

To Hizbollah:

21. Take better into account the views and interests of its constituencies by:

(a) Modifying the composition of its governing Majlis as-Shura to reflect the party’s wider political and social role in Lebanon; and

(b) Soliciting and abiding by the views of community representatives and village elders regarding any attacks staged within the vicinity of their villages near the Blue Line and regarding the desires of villagers living on the Israeli/Syrian side of the Blue Line not to be "liberated" by any Lebanese party.

Amman/Brussels, 18 November 2002


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