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Lebanon Braces for a Turbulent Fall

August has not seen a week without Lebanon making headlines. And mounting domestic and foreign pressures indicate the same may hold true in September.

The need for an unprecedented joint visit by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to Beirut to stem nascent sectarian tensions; the outbreak of violence along the Lebanese-Israeli border; the killing of the leader of Fatah al-Islam—an al-Qaeda-inspired group operating in the shadows of the country’s Palestinian refugee camps; evidence presented by Hezbollah chief Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah backing claims that Israel was behind the February 2005 assassination of late Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri after elements in his group are now expected to be indicted for the murder; all point to the precarious situation the country finds itself.

The IDF vs. the LAF

Israeli and Lebanese troops clashed on Aug. 3 near the Lebanese border village of Adaysseh when Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers crossed a security fence and attempted to uproot a tree. The ensuing firefight left three Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist and a senior Israeli officer dead, and put an already tenuous ceasefire in immediate jeopardy.

Although Hezbollah fighters were in no way involved in the skirmish, United States House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman saw fit to suspend the paltry $100 million in annual U.S. military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) over fears Hezbollah may be having an undue influence on them.

Compared with the militaries of other Arab countries like Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia, the LAF is disproportionately and woefully under-equipped.

Yet in a statement that should put the governments of the aforementioned nations to shame—those that rely exclusively on U.S. military funding to ensure the preservation of rulers on thrones and hence guarantee their subservience—Lebanese Defense Minister Elias al-Murr refused to qualify any aid:

“This person wants to make military aid conditional on not protecting (Lebanon’s) land, people and borders against Israeli aggression. Let them keep their money or give it to Israel. We will confront (Israel) with the capabilities we own.”

Two weeks later, intelligence officers from the same LAF with whom Berman and other U.S. lawmakers have such troubling reservations, killed Abdul Rahman Awad, leader of the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam and one of the most wanted men in Lebanon. The gun battle occurred in the eastern Bekaa valley after he and a top commander fled the Ain al-Hilwah Palestinian refugee camp near Sidon. Reports suggest the two were en route to Iraq to take up arms with an al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group there.

In the summer of 2007, Awad and other Fatah al-Islam fighters holed up in the Nahr al-Bared camp outside Tripoli battled the LAF for three months, leaving nearly 400 militants and soldiers dead before it was over. The group has also been implicated in other attacks against Lebanese soldiers as well as UNIFIL troops patrolling southern Lebanon.

The lack of wisdom in refusing to help fund the LAF should be obvious.

The STL vs. Lebanon

Lebanon remains shaken by ongoing news of infiltration of the country’s military and security sectors by Israeli spy networks. The highest profile figure arrested to date for collaborating with the Mossad is Ret. Army Brig. Gen. Fayez Karam, a well-respected senior politician in the opposition Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun (a party allied with Hezbollah). The retired general’s recent detention shocked the country. Karam had once headed the Army’s antiterrorism and counterespionage units.

At the end of July, Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah disclosed that of the nearly 100 people arrested in the spy crackdown, two worked for Alfa, one of the country’s two mobile service providers.

Revelation that the country’s telecommunication network had also been compromised raised the prospect that the investigation conducted and evidence procured by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—the United Nations-sanctioned body tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the assassination of Prime Minister al-Hariri—had likewise been corrupted. The STL is predicted to rely heavily on data from phone records when they issue their indictments this fall. The credibility and legitimacy of the Tribunal was subsequently dismissed out of hand by Hezbollah as an “Israeli project”.

On Aug. 9 Nasrallah took to the airwaves in a televised press conference. In it, he produced evidence that further corroborated suspicions of Israel’s active participation in Hariri’s assassination, including video footage intercepted from Israeli reconnaissance drones showing the routes of Hariri’s motorcade and the area where the assassination took place.

He went on to say:

“We have definite information on the aerial movements of the Israeli enemy the day Hariri was murdered. Hours before he was murdered, an Israeli drone was surveying the Sidon-Beirut-Jounieh coastline as warplanes were flying over Beirut. This video can be acquired by any investigative commission to ensure it is correct. We are sure of this evidence, or else we would not risk showing it.

 “We have evidence that Ghassan al-Jedd, an alleged Israeli spy who hosted Israeli operations teams, was present at the Rafiq Hariri crime scene. We presented the evidence to the Lebanese authorities, but Jedd escaped from Lebanon before he was caught.”

Nasrallah also made public the confession of the spy Ahmed Nasrallah (no relation) who admitted he tried to influence the path taken by Hariri’s motorcade—at Tel Aviv’s directive—by falsely telling the prime minister’s detail that Hezbollah’s men planned to assassinate him. Confessions of other agents who worked for the Mossad were also broadcast. Ironically, some admitted to monitoring the movements of figures from the pro-Western March 14 Coalition, including the rabidly anti-Hezbollah, anti-Palestinian Lebanese Forces head Samir Geagea, and Saad Hariri himself—all in a bid to frame Hezbollah and Syria for their killing. The hope was to instigate a civil war, with the fury directed squarely at Israel’s two enemies.

The proof presented by Nasrallah was circumstantial and he candidly admitted as much. But even those in Lebanon who doubt his allegations believe they merit further investigation. Although Prosecutor of the Special Tribunal David Bellemare requested Lebanese authorities make available all evidence possessed by Nasrallah, no one seriously believes the STL will question Israeli officials as a result.

Israel’s history of provocative behavior along its border with Lebanon has been recently discussed. The latest conflagration of the IDF with the (now budgetless) LAF was a calculated one meant to conflate Hezbollah and the Army into a single entity, making both legitimate targets in a future strike. Despite the killing of the leader of Fatah al-Islam, the specter of radical Salafi groups operating out of the country’s teeming, ungoverned Palestinian refugee camps was again brought to light. The damage they are capable of inflicting was amply demonstrated in 2007.

Compounding these strains and the constant anxiety over what pretext Israel will use to launch another military assault on Lebanon is the expected fallout from the STL report, due to be released in the coming months. If it does overlook the telling signs of Israeli involvement in the plot to kill Hariri and fingers Hezbollah, the potential exists in Lebanon for sect to be pitted against sect, faction against faction, and coalition against coalition, sowing internal strife and leading to disarray in government—just as Israel intended.

Lebanon seems set for a turbulent fall.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator. He may be reached at: rbamiri [at] yahoo [dot] com.

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Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.

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