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Analysis: Lebanon's southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today.
The border has flared up several times over the past year: two suspected Hezbollah weapons caches mysteriously exploded, and Al Qaeda-linked groups were blamed for two salvos of rocket fire into Israel from southern Lebanon. Under the United Nations Security Council resolution that ended the 2006 war, U.N. peacekeepers are supposed to intercept illegal weapons shipments and raid storage sites south of the Litani River. They have rarely done so. While Hezbollah continues its arms buildup, Israel has also violated the U.N. resolution with frequent overflights into Lebanese airspace and by planting surveillance devices on Lebanese territory.
Neither Israel nor Hezbollah has an immediate interest in starting a war. Israel is more concerned right now about Iran, although if Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, the Shiite militia would likely be part of the Iranian retaliation. As part of Lebanon’s new government, Hezbollah cannot afford to instigate another war with Israel. But the danger of heightened rhetoric and a military buildup is that minor incidents along the border could spiral out of control.
By engaging Israeli troops this week, the Lebanese Army was trying to assert government authority over the border. The army had not been in control of the southern border since the late 1960s, and it only deployed there after the 2006 war. But the army’s action is largely symbolic because Hezbollah effectively controls the frontier.
Still, the symbolism was not lost on Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, who quickly tried to portray the conflict with Israel as nationalist struggle in which his militia and the Lebanese Army are partners. “The army guards the resistance, and the resistance guards the army,” he said at a rally in southern Beirut on Tuesday night. “The resistance will cut off any Israeli hand that tries to harm the Lebanese Army.”
Nasrallah confirmed what most Lebanese already knew: Without a strong central state that can defend itself, Hezbollah remains the most powerful force in Lebanon — and its weapons guarantee that dominance.
Mohamad Bazzi is a journalism professor at New York University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.