Border skirmish raises questions about arming Lebanese troops (UPDATED)

Border skirmish raises questions about arming Lebanese troops (UPDATED)

The recent outbreak of violence on the Israel-Lebanon border is renewing concerns in Washington about the wisdom of supplying arms to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

U.S. military assistance to Lebanon is based on the rationale that supporting the government of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri strengthens Lebanese sovereignty and the government’s authority relative to the influence wielded by Syria and the militant group Hezbollah.

Thus far, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) and Internal Security Forces have proven good stewards of the items the Pentagon has given them, including more than 1,000 small-arms items like sniper rifles and even some Harley Davidson motorcycles, reducing fears that the weapons will fall into Hezbollah’s hands.

But this week’s deadly shooting exchange between LAF and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers over the removal of a tree near the security fence dividing the two countries is raising old questions about the dependability of the LAF, and whether U.S. arms are being used to attack Israel, America’s closest ally in the region.

Neither the U.S. nor Israeli governments know for sure whether the sniper rifle that an LAF soldier fired to start the incident was from the batches of M16 sniper rifles that came from the United States. But some in Congress are determined to find out.

"I am calling for an inquiry into the incident on the Lebanese border, focusing on whether equipment that the United States provided to the Lebanese Armed Forces was used against our ally, Israel," Rep. Ron Klein, D-FL, told The Cable. "If it’s factually shown that this was a Lebanese government authorized action, I would be very concerned about continuing to provide military support to Lebanon, and I think other members of Congress would agree."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates is also said to be skeptical of continued U.S. military support to the LAF, though he has never said so publicly.

Regardless of the origin of the rifle, Klein and others want to know whether the incident was planned by the LAF or the Lebanese government. "We owe it to the American taxpayer to learn whether this attack on Israel was coordinated and premeditated," he said.

An Israeli official, speaking on background, told The Cable that several persuasive pieces of evidence have led Israel to conclude that the attack was planned in advance.

For example, UNIFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force tasked with ensuring calm along the border, requested a three-hour delay before Israel removed the disputed tree so that the Lebanese could be alerted. The IDF acceded to this request, but by the time the tree removal began, there were two Lebanese reporters on the scene. One of them was killed and the other was injured in the resulting melee.

"We believe that in those three hours, they decided this would be a good chance to set up some sort of incident," the official said.

The State Department backed up the U.N.’s account of the incident, which is that the LAF fired first and without direct provocation. "The firing by Lebanese Armed Forces was wholly unjustified and unwarranted," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.

The Israeli official said the first shot was from a sniper rifle and was not aimed at the soldier cutting down the tree (which was apparently on the Lebanese side of the fence but the Israeli side of the border), but rather the unit commander, who was in his truck some 200 feet away.

That commander, Lt. Col. Dov Harari, was killed, and the officer next to him was seriously injured. The targeting of the commander, a 45-year-old reserve officer overseeing a maintenance unit, could not have been an accident or self-defense, the official said. "All of this proves to us that this was a pre-planned ambush and not some sort of mishap."

The official also said that the IDF has concluded that the LAF fired directly at UNIFIL personnel, although no one from UNIFIL was injured. U.S. administration sources said that they had seen no evidence that UNIFIL personnel were targeted and that UNIFIL hasn’t raised the issue with the U.S. government.

An LAF spokesman has said that the Lebanese fired into the air and then were attacked by Israel with artillery shells.

UNIFIL did not respond to a request for comment.

UPDATE: A Lebanese official, speaking on background, strongly disputed Israeli accounts of the clashes.  "It was a not a pre-planned ambush," said the official. "The last thing that the Lebanese wanted is a confrontation and an armed conflict now. So why would they plan to have one with the Israelis and shoot at them?"

The Lebanese contend that, after Israel informed UNIFIL of its plans to cut down the disputed tree, the Lebanese Armed Forces soldiers on the ground asked for a 24-hour delay, which was refused. The soldiers had requested time to raise the issue within their chain of command.  If the Israelis had acceded to the request, the Lebanese believe, the situation could have been resolved peacefully.

The Lebanese official also said that the soldiers did not initially shoot directly at the Israeli officers, as Israeli officials have claimed, but first yelled at them to stop their work. When the Israelis did not respond, the soldiers contacted their military superiors in Beirut and received approval to fire warning shots. "They got the orders for shooting warning shots from their superiors, but not for shooting at the Israelis," said the official. "The aim was to avoid a confrontation."

The Lebanese government contends that the problems along the Israeli-Lebanese border originate from ambiguity regarding the location of the border dividing the two countries. While the IDF soldiers were behind the Blue Line, the U.N.-demarcated line that was published in 2000, it is not the international border, which is the 1949 armistice line. "The Blue Line is the withdrawal line; it’s not the international line," said the official. "And the Lebanese have reservations over some spots, including the place where this incident happened."

To prevent these incidents from occurring in the future, the Lebanese government is calling for closer coordination between UNIFIL, Israel, and Lebanon in the area. It will also request that the international community work to develop an internationally recognized border separating the two countries that would resolve Israel and Lebanon’s remaining territorial disputes.