Opinion: Border tensions reflect broader tensions

BOSTON — The recent border clash between Israel and Lebanon is a cautionary tale of how violence can quickly escalate in the borderlands of the world’s hot temper zones.

It seems that Israeli soldiers were trimming a tree near the fence that demarcates the frontier with Lebanon. The Israelis had notified the United Nations force, UNIFIL, which is tasked with keeping the peace, and insist they were well within Israeli territory.

The Lebanese army, on their side of the line, thought otherwise and demanded that the Israelis leave. The Israelis refused. The Lebanese opened fire killing two. An Israeli tank then opened fire, and the Lebanese fired on the tank. That brought Israeli artillery and helicopter gun ships down on the Lebanese army’s positions, killing two and wounding 15.

Hot words followed the bullets. Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, called for “ways to confront the Israeli aggression … .” Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman called upon the army to use “any available means and whatever the sacrifices” to defend the border.

Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, delighted to get into the act, said “the resistance will cut off any Israeli hand that will hurt the Lebanese Army.” Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would “continue to respond vigorously to any attempt to violate the calm along the northern border,” which could be interpreted as a threat to violate the calm with yet more military force in lock step with Lebanon’s violating the calm.

The incident marked the first time in many years that Israel has skirmished with a regular Arab army, rather than non-state actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The U.N. and the U.S. State Department predictably called on both sides to cool down.

The other hot border where incidents can threaten regional peace is between the two Koreas, but that border is so formalized and controlled that incidents never escalate to the scale that occurred between Israel and Lebanon.

Incidents between nations can get really dangerous when the protagonists have something to prove. Border tensions always reflect broader tensions. The most famous example of unintended consequences was of course the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a tubercular Serbian youth in 1914. That brought on a war that swept away four European empires and decimated a generation. Austria wanted to use the incident to put Serbia in its place and the rest of Europe came in on one side or the other. If cooler heads had prevailed the whole thing could have been avoided.

Border raids in 1915 by Mexican bandit and revolutionary, Pancho Villa, the Hassan Nasrallah of his day, provoked the United States into sending an army into Mexico, which the U.S. used to invade as regularly as Israel invades Lebanon.

In the recent incident with Israel, Lebanon, having been invaded and humiliated by Israel several times in the last quarter century and endured a long occupation of the borderlands, had a chip on its shoulder and wanted to be seen defending the realm.

Israel, relying on the doctrine of force to keep Arabs in line, couldn’t let Arabs shoot at them without taking two eyes and an ear for an eye. And Hezbollah was delighted to use the incident as a rationalization of why it needs to re-arm.

Even Syria got into the act, saying it would defend its Lebanese brothers even though the brothers may not want Syria coming back to defend them. Syria has its own history of occupying Lebanese territory.

One can argue over who provoked whom, but all sides seem to agree that the Lebanese escalated what could have remained a shouting match into an exchange of lethal force. The Lebanese should be condemned for shooting first. But even if Israel was within its rights to trim a tree, was it wise to do so in such a place at such a time?

What is needed are wiser heads, but if that’s not possible a wider buffer zone, wide enough to keep Lebanese and Israelis from rubbing up against each other, might suffice. The U.N. has thousands of soldiers in Lebanon to keep the peace, but it never has.

The world has set up elaborate mechanisms to keep border incidents from escalating. There is a process of appeal to the U.N. and to the international court at The Hague. But in the world’s hot temper zones countries act like hockey dads — quick to beat up other dads whose sons have transgressed against their kids.

And as with human beings, all the rules and appeals to reason are swept aside by nations in the volatile, volcanic hot temper zones where abused populations are quick to seek revenge and defend national honor “whatever the sacrifices are.”