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Lebanon: Hezbollah's way

Analysis: Lebanon's southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today.

Israeli soldiers
Israeli soldiers sit on their tank along the Israeli border with Lebanon on Aug. 4, a day after clashes between the Lebanese army and Israeli army left two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist dead. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Everywhere in the Middle East these days, people are muttering about the possibility of war: between Israel and Hamas, or Israel and Hezbollah, or Israel and Syria, or among bickering Lebanese factions. Or maybe this war will involve everyone.

What might set off such a catastrophic conflict? Maybe it starts with Israeli soldiers trying to trim a tree.

That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday, when Lebanese troops fired on Israeli forces who were pruning a tree along the border between the two countries. That set off a series of skirmishes that killed two Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and an Israeli commander.

This clash, the most serious in four years, underscores why Lebanon’s southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, and how easily a confrontation could spiral out of control. Western policymakers must not shift their attention away from Lebanon, a small country that has long been the staging ground of proxy wars in the region.

The latest fighting did not involve Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia that has fought Israel for decades. But Hezbollah remains a central player in the dangerous drama that is unfolding along the Lebanese-Israeli border. When a pro-American coalition won Lebanon’s parliamentary elections last year, a seductive conventional wisdom emerged in the West: Because Hezbollah and its allies were defeated at the polls, the group would lose some of its luster and a U.S.-backed government would rule Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah remains the country’s dominant military and political force. It holds the key to both domestic and external stability, and its actions will help determine whether there is another war with Israel, or if Lebanon will once again be wracked by internal conflict.

In November, the U.S.-backed Sunni leader Saad Hariri was chosen as prime minister after he agreed to share power with Hezbollah and its allies. But Hariri’s government has no influence over the militia and its weapons buildup along the border. As long as the Lebanese Army remains weak, Hezbollah can argue that its fighters are needed to defend the country against Israel.

When Lebanon’s 15-year civil war ended in 1990, all of the country’s militias were disarmed. But the government allowed Hezbollah to keep its weapons as “national resistance” against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which continued until May 2000. After the Israelis withdrew, many Lebanese asked why the group did not disarm and become a strictly political movement. Hezbollah insisted that its mission of resistance was not over because Israel was still occupying a strip of land — called Shebaa Farms — at the murky intersection of Israel, Syria and Lebanon. (The United Nations later determined that the area is Syrian territory, not Lebanese.)

In July 2006, Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid, setting off a 34-day war that crippled Lebanon’s infrastructure, displaced one million people, and killed more than 1,200 Lebanese, the majority of them civilians. Since that conflict ended, both sides have been preparing for a new round. Hezbollah leaders boast that the group now has an even larger and more potent cache of missiles than it did four years ago. Israeli officials, who have also escalated their war rhetoric in recent months, estimate Hezbollah’s arsenal at between 40,000 and 80,000 rockets.

The basic problem is that Hezbollah sets its own military strategy and it makes decisions that could lead to war without the involvement of the Lebanese state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to hold the Lebanese government responsible for the militia’s actions. That puts Hariri in an extremely difficult position and it will make him reliant on the Obama administration to keep Israel at bay.