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Opinion: Keeping Hezbollah and Israel from waging war

The US and Europe must ensure that the most volatile border in the Middle East stays under control.

Lebanon's Hezbollah members parade during a ceremony to commemorate Martyr's Day in the suburbs of Beirut, Nov. 11, 2009. (Issam Kobeisy/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Lebanon’s southern frontier with Israel is the most volatile border in the Middle East today, and it could easily spiral out of control. At a White House meeting last week, President Barack Obama asked Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to stop the flow of weapons being smuggled into south Lebanon.

But Obama knows that the most powerful military force in Lebanon does not answer to the president or any other Lebanese politician. The Shiite militant group Hezbollah is far more accountable to its main patron, Iran, than to any internal Lebanese constituency. And so Lebanon — a small country wedged between Syria, Israel and the Mediterranean Sea — once again finds itself at the mercy of battles beyond its borders.

In November, after five months of political bickering, the new U.S.-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri agreed to share power with Hezbollah and its allies. But Hariri’s government will have 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 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 1 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 three years ago. Israeli officials, who are also escalating their war rhetoric, estimate Hezbollah’s arsenal at between 40,000 and 80,000 rockets. On Nov. 3, the Israeli navy intercepted a ship in the Mediterranean Sea that was carrying 500 tons of rockets, mortars and other ammunition. Israel claimed that it was an Iranian arms shipment intended to reach Hezbollah through Syria. That led to a new round of threats from both sides.

The border has been flaring up in recent months: 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 U.N. 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.