Against the backdrop of the recent deterioration in Israel’s relations with Iran and the worsening of Tel Aviv’s relations with the Palestine Liberation Organization, whose militias operate from Lebanon, Syria and the Golan Heights, the situation on the border between Lebanon and Israel is becoming much more complicated.
The IDF’s readiness for a new military operation against the Lebanese Hezbollah group was announced by Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz on his Twitter page the other day. According to a statement B. Gantz made on the anniversary of the Israeli military invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, the country’s armed forces are developing various scenarios for destroying strongholds and other infrastructure used by Hezbollah.
The day before, Israeli Air Force fighter jets once again invaded Lebanese airspace and flew low-altitude flights over populated areas in the south of the country, “simulating aerial attacks on the city of Nabatieh and its neighboring areas,” the Lebanese Army Command communiqué said. “The planes crossed the sound barrier several times, causing loud sonic booms.” Previously, Israeli fighter jets had been spotted in the skies over the southern port of Tyre and Cape al-Naqurah.
The Lebanese military informed the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) command about Israeli violations of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which established a ceasefire on the border after the 2006 summer conflict. Earlier, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, in a meeting with UN Special Coordinator Joanna Wronecka, emphasized that Israel “continues to regularly violate Lebanese sovereignty and use the country’s airspace for aggressive attacks on neighboring Syria”.
Tel Aviv has tried to explain the increase in Israeli flights in Lebanese skies by tracking the movements of Hezbollah fighters, who are fighting in Syria on the side of the government army. Meanwhile, Israel has made no secret of its fears of a possible retaliatory strike by Hezbollah following Israel’s blatantly provocative and aggressive missile attack on the civilian international airport in Damascus on June 10, in violation of basic international law by Tel Aviv.
The Guardian, citing a study by AirPressure.info, pointed out that Israel has violated Lebanese airspace more than 22,000 times since 2007, using advanced fighter planes or surveillance aircraft. Few of the incursions are brief, with many lasting an average of four hours. These flights were most frequent in southern Lebanon, near Beirut, as well as in areas north of the capital and the territories bordering Syria. According to the author of this study, such regular overflights by Israeli aircraft are detrimental to Lebanese residents, as confirmed by 11 peer-reviewed academic journal articles that have examined the acute physiological effects of aircraft noise, often causing anxiety and panic attacks among civilians. There are therefore good reasons to consider the situation in Lebanon to be “an atmosphere of violence” and it cannot be ignored, the British publication notes.
At the end of May, the Lebanese army press office reported that in addition to warplanes, another violation of Lebanese airspace was committed by an Israeli drone that appeared in Lebanese skies from the occupied Shebaa area and loitered over Hasbaya and Arkoub. In addition, an Israeli navy boat was also spotted entering Lebanese waters off the southern coast, near Ras al-Naqurah. Earlier, an Israeli Air Force Skylark drone that was on a surveillance and intelligence-gathering mission fell due to a technical malfunction between Ayta ash-Shab and Rumeish in southern Lebanon.
The conflict situation between Lebanon and Israel is longstanding; on several occasions the countries have fought against each other and so far not only have no diplomatic relations been established, but there is no clear border between them. Israel has established a system of fortifications and long-term firing points on the border. Since the Lebanese Armed Forces are very small and have no air force, no air defense capability and are unable to defend their land, air and sea borders, Israel takes advantage of this situation, with not only Jewish aviation but also Israeli troops regularly crossing the border and entering Lebanese territory.
The situation also remains very tense in the area of Cape al-Naqurah, where Israeli warships are constantly operating. At the beginning of 2022 the situation in the disputed waters over which Lebanon and Israel are claiming escalated sharply because of Israel’s sending equipment for the construction of a gas production plant in the Karish field. The Energean Power platform, designed to produce liquefied natural gas (LNG), was delivered to the area by Israel in early June, prompting Lebanon to strongly protest and demand that the Israeli authorities immediately recall the ship. Tel Aviv has not commented on the demand, and Israeli media have hinted that warships will soon be sent to the area of the field “to ensure the safety of gas production”.
On June 13, US special envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in Beirut to deal with the situation and met the Lebanese leadership. Although the details of this meeting are unknown, Washington, while remaining committed to maintaining Tel Aviv’s exclusive position in regional affairs, actually persuaded the Lebanese side to give up claims on the Karish field without offering anything in return, according to several media reports.
The issue of the gas field is extremely important for Lebanon because the country has a constant energy shortage, although it does not have the means to exploit the shelf on its own. As some Western experts have suggested, a compromise solution could be to let Israel take advantage of the deposits, provided that part of the production is transferred to Lebanon as a kind of rent. However, such a solution might not satisfy Lebanon for fear of setting a precedent in a long-standing border dispute, after which Israel might assert its sovereignty over the entire Lebanese shelf and subsequently install new platforms to the north and deploy exploration equipment on them.
In this context, the head of the Lebanese delegation to the border demarcation negotiations, Brigadier General Bassam Yassin, said that Beirut would not discuss the presence of Israeli ships in its territorial waters, but would insist on their withdrawal.
But even with all the desire to thwart Israel, Lebanon today lacks its own tools and capabilities, although the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which is more heavily armed than the Lebanese national army, has them at its disposal. Hezbollah’s readiness to defend Lebanon was recently made clear by its leader Hassan Nasrallah, who pointed out that the group had all the resources at its disposal to defend Lebanon’s maritime borders. Given that an Israeli floating platform with an LNG cargo could become not only an accessible, but also a very convenient target, the situation risks spiraling out of control if international partners do not intervene on both sides of the conflict.
Vladimir Odintsov, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.