Stephen M. Walt

What was the Lebanese army thinking?

What was the Lebanese army thinking?

Based on the news reports I’ve read this morning, it was some numbskull in the Lebanese Army who was responsible for the clash that occurred along the Israeli-Lebanese border yesterday. An Israeli officer was killed by sniper fire as IDF troops were removing a tree in the buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon, and the IDF retaliated for the attack and killed two Lebanese soldiers and a journalist. Some initial accounts suggested that the IDF had crossed the border to remove the tree, but U.N. officials now confirm that the tree was in Israeli territory.

My reaction? What a pointless and tragic waste of life. I don’t know which Lebanese individuals were directly responsible for the shooting of the IDF officer, but it was stupid and wrong and whoever did it ought to be held to account.  How anyone could think that taking potshots at soldiers removing a tree — a tree, for heaven’s sake — might accomplish anything positive is beyond me.  That’s the sort of behavior we expect from North Korea. 

Like Juan Cole, I also wonder why the IDF didn’t ask UNIFIL (the U.N. peacekeeping force) to remove the tree for them or to arrange conditions where it could have been done safely.  My guess is that it didn’t occur to them that anything serious might happen, but if so, that assumption was tragically wrong. The BBC reports that the IDF is now removing the tree under UNIFIL supervision: Had it done so in the first place, the dead officer would still be alive and so would the two Lebanese soldiers and the journalist. 

This incident underscores the fragility of the current peace between Israel and Lebanon.  When security is precarious, military personnel will be more inclined to shoot first and ask questions later, and may also engage in provocative actions to show that they can’t be intimidated. The problem is that this is all very risky, especially in this context. 

There has been some speculation in recent weeks about the possibility of renewed fighting in Lebanon — and maybe even a replay of the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah — which is just about the last thing the region needs right now. If you want to get a good sense of the issues and the need for renewed diplomatic action, I recommend the latest International Crisis Group report: "Drums of War: Israel and the ‘Axis of Resistance." But don’t read it just before you go to bed.