Tensions have been high between Israel and Lebanon for months, with flurries of tweets in June breathlessly sharing that Lebanon’s Hezbollah group had erected tents to shelter soldiers on “Israeli territory”, and general fears of a military escalation.
On Wednesday, on the anniversary of the beginning of Israel’s month-long war against Hezbollah in 2006, members of the Shia group were wounded in a flare-up on the border. A Lebanese security source confirmed the incident to AFP, saying the three had been “wounded by Israeli fire”.
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Commenting on the incident, the Israeli military said “suspects” had tried to “sabotage the security fence” it had built there.
A week ago, Israel also struck southern Lebanon after an anti-tank missile launched from there exploded in the border area.
Let’s take a closer look:
Where exactly is this all happening?
Lebanon and Israel may have agreed on a maritime border between their two countries late last year, but the land border between areas the two nations control, including the Golan Heights, is more combustible.
Tensions are primarily located across the areas of the divided village of Ghajar, the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Chouba Hills – all situated in a small area along the border between Lebanon and Syria’s Golan Heights, which was occupied by Israel in 1967.
After Israel invaded Lebanon during the latter’s civil war (first invading in 1978 and then again in 1982), it continued to occupy territory in southern Lebanon until 2000, when it announced a withdrawal.
While the withdrawal was certified by the United Nations, Lebanon disputed it, arguing that the Shebaa Farms was part of its territory, and not part of the Syrian Golan Heights, which Israel continues to occupy.
So there are two separate issues here that lead to the current dispute: the first is that Israel occupies the Golan Heights and treats it as its own territory in violation of international law, and the second is that there was already a pre-existing disagreement between Syria and Lebanon over the border, prior to the Israeli occupation.
That disagreement between Syria and Lebanon goes back to the end of the French mandate in the region in the 1940s. Locals who had farms in the area, but lived in what became Lebanon, also challenge the exact location of the border.
The Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Chouba Hills should not be confused with the villages of Shebaa and Kfar Chouba, which are not disputed territories and lie within Lebanon. But, in rural Lebanon, villages are often surrounded by unpopulated hills or farmland that belongs to them – hence the disputed ownership of the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Chouba Hills.
Why is the situation tense?
Tensions between Israel and Lebanon rose in June after the Hezbollah tents were erected, and amid claims by Hezbollah that Israel was building a wall on the Lebanese part of Ghajar, a village divided by the UN-drawn “Blue Line” demarcating the de facto border between Israel, Lebanon, and the occupied Golan Heights.
While Ghajar is supposed to be divided between Lebanon and Israel, the latter occupied the whole village in 2006.
In early June, Israel complained to the UN about the Hezbollah tents, dozens of metres inside the area of the Shebaa Farms and the Kfar Chouba Hills. Israeli media outlets have since reported that Hezbollah removed one tent, but the group has not confirmed that.
Separately, in recent months, Lebanese officials say that Israel has been constructing a wall around Ghajar, with Lebanon warning that Israel might annex the northern part of the town to the Israeli-controlled part.
What’s the latest?
The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the peacekeeping force along the border, said it was investigating the incidents. “In the meantime, the situation is extremely severe,” it said. “We urge everyone to cease any action that may lead to escalation of any kind.”
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made a televised address on Wednesday to commemorate the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, when at least 1,200 people in Lebanon were killed, mostly civilians, and about 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers fighting Hezbollah inside Lebanon.
“Israel doesn’t dare to make a move in [Lebanese] territory against the tent because it knows what will happen,” he said, noting that the tent “serves the interest of Hezbollah and Lebanon”.
“We put our tent on Lebanese land, and it is Lebanese land with the recognition of the Lebanese state. The Israelis have not dared to take action against it. Our operatives have their directions in the event of an Israeli attack,” Nasrallah said.
On the issue of the wall, Nasrallah noted that “[the village of Ghajar] is Lebanese territory occupied by Israel. Hezbollah’s position is clear: There will not be a quiet solution to this issue. Israel must return Ghajar, and it is the responsibility of Hezbollah to get it back.”
UNIFIL commander Major General Aroldo Lázaro met with Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut on Monday.
Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib also said that Lebanese leaders told Lázaro that Israel should withdraw its troops from the Lebanese part of Ghajar.