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ISRAEL, LEBANON: The Blue Line and other observations

August 5, 2010 |  8:12 pm

This week's cross-border shooting raised questions about the delicate balance between Israel and Lebanon and how long it will last. The border is a tight-rope negotiated by the Israel Defense Force, the Lebanese Armed Forces, UNIFIL and Hezbollah, their unofficial but powerful partner.

Who tripped what wire this week?

When Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000, it pulled back to what is called the Blue Line. Israel refers to it as the border. It also erected a fence. It doesn't follow the Blue Line, however. Its route, says Amir Peretz, defense minister during the Second Lebanon War, was dictated by topography, not diplomacy. The fence and line are only meters apart at some points; in others, they are hundreds of meters from each other.

The areas between the fence and the 2000 withdrawal line are called "enclaves" by Israel. It was in one such enclave that the IDF uprooted a tree to install a surveillance camera in a blind-spot. It's also these places that heighten concerns that soldiers could be captured. The Lebanese army saw this as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty, but Israel said it was within its rights on its own soil. Initial responses were wishy-washy but subsequent statements by the U.S. and UNIFIL sided with Israel on this one.

Few people know exactly where the Blue Line runs and its marking is incomplete. UNIFIL, the LAF and IDF have been marking it, using various means from historic 1920s maps to the latest in mapping and GPS technology to identify and mark it so that civilians and armies know where it runs. In the video above showing the process, UNIFIL explains: The Blue Line is not the border, the technical fence is not the Blue Line, but under no circumstance may anyone cross the Blue Line. No wonder there are disputes.

The situation underscores the danger of leaving territorial disputes open. The tiniest of hangnails have a way of turning into huge cliff-hangers, providing interested parties with excuses.

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Different people came away from this week's events with different lessons, depending on where they stand on issues of regional diplomacy.

Efi Eitam, formerly a senior army officer and hardline lawmaker, pointed to the ongoing erosion of U.N. Security Council resolution 1701 that ended the Second Lebanon War. Hezbollah, he said, is eating away at the main points of the resolution, which Israeli leaders had praised, though prudently, as a great achievement. First, Hezbollah "took care" of the prohibition on the transfer of weapons, which now run freely from Syria and Iran, he said. Next, they took care of UNIFIL and restricted its activity in south Lebanon and last, they are getting the LAF to fight its war. If Lebanon's official army, a branch of sovereignty, is infiltrated or indoctrinated to the extent that they fight Hezbollah's war in Lebanese uniform, this is another step backward for Lebanon's future, Eitam said this week.

Zalman Shoval, a senior Likud policy adviser and twice-ambassador to the U.S., said that if anything is to be learned from the incident it is that international forces are not to be trusted with Israel's security, a point to remember in any future agreement. Palestinians and some Europeans have suggested that in the event of Palestinian statehood, security would be entrusted to a UNIFIL-like force or NATO.

Ami Ayalon, former navy commander, Shin Bet chief and left-leaning legislator, advised people to stay away from conspiracy theories linking the recent incidents but pointed to the reality that made them coincide and likened it to riding a bike. One of the first things every kid finds out is that movement is key. And right now, Israel is totally static: There's no peace process with the Syrians or Palestinians, and Israel's international standing is terrible. This lack of movement makes every local incident a dangerous one that can knock Israel off the bike, Ayalon told Israeli radio. 

A similar point was made by publicist Ari Shavit of Haaretz newspaper. Likening the situation to the border skirmishes that ultimately led to the 1967 war, he writes that the incident didn't break the calm but cracked it, for now. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must realize that the good years are coming to an end and that he must take action "to change the strategic landscape." Deterrence for its own sake is "no longer a tenable strategy," Shavit said.

Outsiders are observing the situation too. In a recent report written for the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote that Israel could decide that the security threat of Hezbollah, which has steadily rearmed amid violation of 1701, "has reached intolerable levels and take pre-emptive military action." Read the memo titled "A Third Lebanon War" here and Amir Oren's analysis here. Oren, a defense commentator for Haaretz, wrote that the first, second and maybe third Lebanon wars are misnomers; really, he said, they're different battles in a 40-year war.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Above: UNIFIL video from November 2009 explaining the Blue Line. Credit: YouTube

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