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Israel builds new wall at Lebanon’s southern border

Tension is rising on the Lebanese southern border, where Israel has started building a wall, despite UNIFIL’s reassurances that the situation there is under control.

BEIRUT — Israel started building a new wall along its border with Lebanon on Feb. 8. No official reason was given, but the last time Israel built a wall along the border in 2012, it was to “avoid friction.”

In 2012, the 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) wall was erected next to the village of Kfar Kila in Lebanon. “This used to be a touristic area. People would come and take pictures of themselves in front of occupied Palestine,” Abu Ali, a local from Kfar Kila, told Al-Monitor, pointing to the small replica of the Dome of the Rock that stands in the middle of the village’s roundabout. Today, the wall, which is between 7-10 meters high (23-33 feet), completely obstructs the view of the Israeli town of Metulla. Several jeeps of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) patrol the area, and intelligence officers of the Lebanese army dressed in civilian clothes keep an eye on visitors.

Hezbollah, the powerful pro-Iranian Lebanese party headed by Hassan Nasrallah and whose power base lies in south Lebanon, has taken over the decoration of the wall. Drawings and graffiti are resolutely anti-Israeli: “Palestine shines,” “The resistance is always ready,” “Nasrallah, we are with you.” Others are more mundane: “Malak, Ali loves you.”

The centerpiece of the wall is covered with dozens of pictures of Hezbollah and Amal (another Lebanese Shiite party) “martyrs.” The biggest one, of Abdallah Mahmoud Atawi, a suicide bomber who drove a car packed with 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) of explosives into two Israeli convoys in 1988, is nearly as high as the wall. A cease-fire has largely been maintained along the frontier since Israel fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006.

The setting of the more recent wall could not be more different. Roughly 500 meters (0.3 miles) long, it lies in an empty and wild stretch of land, in a military zone a few meters away from the sea, at Lebanon’s southeastern tip. A few Lebanese soldiers scattered along the border watch the construction site, close to the temporary “Blue Line” created by the UN to demarcate Israel’s military withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000. “If they cross into Lebanese territory, we will defend our country,” one of the soldiers told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

The wall was erected in one day, on Feb. 8, UNIFIL spokeswoman Andrea Tenenti told Al-Monitor. Since then, “there have been ongoing engineering works south of the Blue Line around the same area. The digging … was mainly done to prepare the installation of additional parts of the wall.”

Should construction of the wall continue, the Lebanese government worries that it will pass through land that they believe belongs to Lebanon but lies on the Israeli side of the Blue Line. “There are 13 reservation points along the Blue Line that still need to be demarcated,” a government source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor. “Our position is that if Israel wants to build a wall on their side of the border, it is their business.” But “if Israel builds on the reservation points, the Lebanese government will not remain idle. We will take action because this is a violation of our sovereignty.”

Nasrallah has publicly backed the government’s position. “I’m telling Israel, take the warnings very seriously. Lebanon will be united behind the state and the army to stop the enemy’s action, and the resistance will take its responsibilities,” Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar quoted him as saying in late January. Israel, on the other hand, maintains that the wall is entirely on its territory.

According to Tenenti, the situation is under control. The current building site is not in disputed areas. Lebanon and Israel “have confirmed their commitment to the cessation of hostilities and to take advantage of UNIFIL’s liaison and coordination mechanism to find solutions aimed at preventing violations.” The tripartite meetings, which include representatives from the Israeli army, the Lebanese army and UNIFIL, have been organized once a month near UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura since 2006. These past few weeks, the meetings have been more frequent to address tensions caused by the new wall.

The border area near Naqoura has been relatively calm in the past few years, save for several incidents in 2013, including an explosion that wounded four Israeli soldiers in Labbouneh. In Alma Chaab, a Christian village nearby, the new wall fails to stir passions like in Kfar Kila. “Israel is free to do what it wants on its territory,” Jean Hanna, the owner of a small restaurant, told Al-Monitor. The most serious border fighting occurred back in 2010 in Adaisseh, a little under 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Naqoura. Clashes led to the death of a senior Israeli officer, two Lebanese soldiers and a Lebanese journalist.

Tensions between the two countries were already running high before the construction of the wall. Another border dispute, this time at sea, was brought back to the surface when Lebanon decided to sign its first offshore oil and gas exploration agreements on Feb. 9, which include a block disputed by Israel. However, the mediation conducted by David Satterfield, the acting assistant US secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, has helped keep the situation under control. During one of his three visits to Lebanon in the past few weeks, he assured Lebanese officials that “Israel does not want escalation,” according to Reuters. In an interview with an Iraqi TV channel Feb. 23, Lebanese President Michel Aoun invited Israel to resort to arbitration to solve the border dispute.

Back in Beirut, member of parliament Bassem Chab, who sits on the parliament’s National Defense, Interior and Municipal Affairs Committee, fears that Israel could try to push Lebanon toward a small, localized conflict similar to 2010. “For Israeli hard-liners, the Lebanese army is a lost cause, as they think it is in cahoots with Hezbollah. Therefore, the army must be careful in not being lured into clashes at the border that would lead to a cut in American aid,” the Lebanese army’s main international backer, Chab told Al-Monitor.

The latest US military assistance package was valued at $120 million. On March 15, a conference will be organized in Rome to garner international support for the Lebanese army. The army denies any collaboration with Hezbollah, whose military wing never disarmed after the end of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and has been fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

These border disputes come among heightened regional tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria. According to Chab, “If it were not for Syria, Israel would be more tolerant of Hezbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon. They know that Hezbollah would not start a war there, as it would be devastating for the local Shiite population. But Hezbollah is less fearful of a confrontation in Syria.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly warned that he would not tolerate Iran’s growing presence at its borders with Syria and Lebanon.

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