After months of quiet, southern Lebanon rumbled with the sounds of artillery and rocket fire this weekend, pushing the Israeli-Lebanese border area back into the headlines of most Arab and Israeli newspapers.
On Friday, the militant Hezbollah group attacked Israeli forces in the disputed Shebaa Farms area of southeastern Lebanon, retaliation for what the party said was Israel’s assassination of a Hezbollah official, Ali Hussein Saleh, in Beirut’s southern suburbs a week earlier. Although the attack was the first since last January, it conformed to the so-called “rules of the game” in the south by being limited to a region Hezbollah considers occupied Lebanese land. On Sunday, however, the situation grew more complicated, with what a commentator in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz described as “the worst incident on the northern border in over a year.” He was referring to the death of an Israeli youth killed by shrapnel from a Hezbollah anti-aircraft shell that landed in the border town of Shlomi. In recent months, the party has put up a curtain of anti-aircraft fire above northern Israel whenever Israeli warplanes fly into Lebanese airspace, regardless of whether the planes are in the immediate vicinity of Hezbollah’s gunners. The Israeli flyovers and Hezbollah’s potshots have prompted protests from U.N. officials in Lebanon, but as Ha’aretz noted, “Curtailment of these flight routines has been considered in the past, but [Israel] decided not to end them entirely.”
The real question isn’t overflights, but rather who maintains the initiative in south Lebanon. Hezbollah, mainly at Syria’s behest, wants to keep an active front open in the border area, both to remain politically relevant and to give Syria military leverage in any future negotiations with Israel on the occupied Golan Heights. That’s why, the Jerusalem Post reported, “In a message sent to the Syrians via the U.S. and the U.N., Israel clarified its position … Israel will strike Syrian targets in Lebanon if attacked by the Hezbollah.” The desire of both Israel and the Lebanese government to avert further escalation was evident, however. As the Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat noted, “Lebanon and Israel go to the [U.N.] Security Council after the exchange of fire.” Lebanese papers, meanwhile, focused on a late-night flyover of Beirut by Israeli jets. That Israel sought to intimidate Hezbollah was evident in this headline in the daily Al-Anwar, which caters to a mostly Christian audience: “Israeli Jets Carry Out Mock Air Raids Over Beirut Early Today.” The left-wing Al-Safir also mentioned the flights, over a story whose subhead read, “The resistance’s anti-aircraft fire kills a settler [sic] … the confrontation moves to the Security Council.”
Events of the past few days may well prove to be in Israel’s favor politically, despite the death of the Israeli civilian, because the United States swiftly condemned the Shebaa Farms attack, calling it a “calculated and provocative escalation” by Hezbollah. In an interview with Lebanon’s English-language Daily Star, the Hezbollah commander for south Lebanon described U.S. anger as “ridiculous.” He defended the attack as retaliation for Saleh’s killing and asked, “Why didn’t the United States condemn 7,700 Israeli air, sea and land violations against Lebanon’s sovereignty?” This defiance notwithstanding, anti-Syrian and anti-Hezbollah feeling is high in Washington, with Congress reportedly eager to move on legislation holding Syria accountable both for its support of Hezbollah and its “occupation of Lebanon.” The tension in southern Lebanon will have only encouraged Damascus’ foes. Indeed, some in Beirut have speculated that Saleh’s killing was destined to provoke the border violence in order to put Syria and Hezbollah on the spot in the United States.
Hundreds of miles away in Baghdad, a man whose name has considerable resonance for Hezbollah was demolishing idols: In an interview with the London-based Saudi daily Al-Hayat published Sunday, Hussein Khomeini, the grandson of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, attacked Iran’s clerical regime and arguably its most noteworthy principle: the so-called Velayat-e Faquih, or “guardianship of the jurisconsult.” Ayatollah Khomeini imposed the concept, which allows the clergy to also hold political power—and a senior cleric to become Iran’s supreme political leader. Many in the Iraqi and Iranian Shiite clergy oppose their brethren’s interference in political affairs. Hussein Khomeini said his views had so angered Iran’s regime that it sent death squads to kill him: “Life is in God’s hands. I heard they dispatched three teams to [kill me].”