Lebanon Pulse

Israeli fly-over coincides with attack on Lebanese army

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Article Summary
A day after the Lebanese army was ambushed in Baalbek on Dec. 2, Israeli aircraft violated Lebanese airspace in the same area, raising questions about a possible cooperation between Israel and Syrians on the border with Lebanon.

For decades, almost daily official Lebanese news sources reported on Israeli aircraft violating the country's airspace, from the south and west toward the sea, and even from the east and the north. However, the news announced in Beirut on Dec. 4 was more significant than before.

The Lebanese army issued a statement at noon on Dec. 4, saying, “At 1 p.m. on Dec. 3, an Israeli reconnaissance plane violated Lebanon's airspace from above Rmeish [southern Lebanon] and circulated over the southern areas Riyak and Baalbek [central Bekaa Valley], before leaving Lebanon’s airspace today [Dec. 4] at 7:25 a.m. from above Kfarkela, and at noon from above Rmeish.”

This news, however, was cause for concern in that the Israeli plane entered Lebanese airspace from the south before reaching the central and northern Bekaa Valley at the eastern and northern borders with Syria, which are areas rarely flown over by the Israeli air force.

Less than two hours after the first statement, the Lebanese army issued another statement, saying, “Around 10:30 a.m. today [Dec. 4], a drone flew over the Riyaq area and the army’s anti-aircraft fired at it.”

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A Lebanese government source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that on the sidelines of the Cabinet’s weekly session on Dec. 4 there was additional data about the two Israeli flyovers.

Concerned ministers reported during the session that the official military authorities noticed that the first Israeli flyover on Dec. 3 was not in line with the repeated violations of the Israeli air force, which often focuses on Hezbollah areas. That particular MK drone flyover, according to these ministers, circled over the Riyaq area of the central Bekaa Valley, and particularly over the military airport used by the Lebanese army in the town.

According to the same source, this was what made the Lebanese military authorities mobilize their troops and get ready for a possible emergency. The following day, the same drone returned to take photographs and collect information and data. It flew over the same military base of the Lebanese army, and orders were issued to fire anti-aircraft guns at it.

The government source said that the concerns of the military authorities were driven by the reality on the ground in the Bekaa Valley, along the border with Syria. This border has been serving for months as a demarcation line between insurgents and opponents of the government in Damascus to the east and Hezbollah guerrilla fighters and Lebanese army units to the west.

Moreover, it seems that the confrontation points are concentrated in three areas:

  • In the northern Bekaa Valley from the Syrian Qalamoun barren lands in the direction of the Lebanese town of Arsal. On Aug. 2, a violent confrontation took place between Lebanese army units on the one hand and armed Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists on the other.
  • In the southern Bekaa Valley, where there is a new demarcation line between the western Lebanese Shebaa Farms area and the Syrian regions of Quneitra and the Golan Heights to the east.
  • In the center between the Syrian Zabadani region to the east and the two Lebanese regions of Zahle and Baalbek to the west. Here, terrorists tried to infiltrate toward the central Bekaa Valley in a failed raid on Oct. 6.

Remarkably, however, a few days before the Israeli reconnaissance plane flyover in this area, armed terrorists had ambushed on Dec. 2 a patrol of the Lebanese army in the Ras Baalbek region, which is within the same area. This ambush led to seven army deaths.

The government source said that following the ambush, and out of fear the recent events could be paving the way for further terrorist attacks, the Lebanese army mobilized its forces. The Riyaq airport and barracks, as well as the nearby Ablah barracks, served as the backbone of the army action in this area. It also served as the army units’ focal movement as they got ready to repulse a terrorist attack targeting the Lebanese territory.

At this particular time, the Israeli air force flew over the Riyaq airport and the two barracks of the Lebanese army in charge of security in the region, to spy on this particular site. Israel was spying on a Lebanese military location, which may be targeted by Syrian armed opposition fighters. This happened amid Western media reports about the cooperation between Israeli authorities and some armed Syrians in southern Syria. This raised legitimate concern among the Lebanese that Israel is spying on them to serve the fighters. The transfer of data collected from the Israeli flyovers of main locations of the Lebanese army, to armed groups, may be of great service to the latter in their attacks against the army and their attempts to breach its bases. This might also benefit Israel itself, as these steps will increase pressure on Hezbollah through terrorists, from the northeast to Hezbollah’s areas of deployment where it confronts the Israeli army. Thus, the routine Israeli airspace violations turned into a hostile and serious step that required an anti-aircraft response by the Lebanese army, which is a rare step to be taken in Lebanese airspace and territory.

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Found in: lebanon, lebanese army, israeli air force, israel, borders, bekaa valley

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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