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    Middle East
     Dec 2, 2011


Whodunit on the Lebanon-Israel border
By Sami Moubayed

Four Katyusha rockets were fired into northern Israel shortly after midnight on Tuesday, shifting the world's attention from Syria and Egypt onto the Lebanese-Israeli border, yet again. These four rockets were fired onto Western Galilee, territory that was famously targeted by Hezbollah during the 2006 war on Lebanon. They caused minimal damage and nobody was wounded or killed.
They prompted retaliation from the Israelis, who placed the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on high alert, while the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon said that it would patrol extra troops along the Lebanese-Israeli border, fearing that other attacks will follow, in complete disregard to the 2006 ceasefire, UNSCR 1701.
The rocket launchers, according to Lebanese authorities, were

 
found in the Rumaysh area in southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold. They were fired into Israel from an area between the villages of Aita Shaab and Rumaysh, approximately two kilometers from the border - for the first time since war raged between Israel and Lebanon in the summer of 2006. At first glance, the first thing that came to mind in Israel was: "Hezbollah!"

The Lebanese were worried, with due cause, by the sudden border escalation. They remember too clearly that the 2006 war led to the killing of more than 1,200 citizens, mostly civilians, 30% of whom were children below the age of 13 (according to UNICEF). It also resulted in the displacement of over 1 million people, and in infrastructure damage that exceeds US$64 million.

What makes matters worse is that this week's events seemed to be taking a similar course. In 2006, border incidents led to an all-out war after Hezbollah seized two IDF soldiers. The major difference is that this time, Hezbollah has said nothing about the attack - and it is not in the habit of launching attacks then denying them or distancing itself from them. Had Hezbollah fired the four rockets, it would have trumpeted the news loudly, as would its allies in the Lebanese ruling coalition, the March 8 Alliance.

Hezbollah's al-Manar TV would have praised the attack and repeated footage over and over with subtitles in Hebrew, as it did in 2006. Additionally, when Hezbollah strikes, it hits targets and creates plenty of damage. These attacks were amateur, to say the least, not "Hezbollah-style".

During his numerous appearances in recent months, Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah has warned that Israel might try to provoke Hezbollah into another confrontation. Many in the Arab world argue the exact opposite, claiming that Hezbollah wants to spark off a regional war to divert the world's attention from Syria. A regional war, they believe, would occupy the entire Middle East, putting a strong break on the Arab Spring.

But, if Nasrallah's group did not fire the rockets, then who else did? Hezbollah might be the most powerful player in South Lebanon but is it slowly becoming not the only player? The group that officially claimed responsibility was the Abdullah Azzam Brigade, a controversial militia, affiliiated with al-Qaeda, that emerged in 2003 after the US invasion of Iraq.

The brigade's first operation was on Egypt's Red Sea resort of Taba in 2004. In April 2010, a splinter group emerged from it, called the Marwan Hadid division. They claimed responsibility for firing a Grad missile at the Israeli port city of Asqalan. In July 2010, the group boasted of an attack on the Japanese oil tanker in the Straits of Hormuz. Hardliners within the radical jihadist community give little attention to the group, claiming that it has little influence on the ground and takes credit for operations it has not carried out.

Others argue that the Azzam Brigade is nothing but "a name of convenience" used by al-Qaeda cells in different parts of the world, more so than an actual organization. Abdullah Azzam, after all, was a highly influential Sunni Muslim Palestinian scholar who helped train Afghan jihadists against the Soviet invasion of 1989. His name inspires young jihadists of today, just as it did with his protege, Osama bin Laden, in the 1970s, when he convinced him to leave his contracting career in Saudi Arabia for a life dedicated to jihad in Afghanistan.

Three possible scenarios
We don't know for sure if the Abdullah Azzam Brigade was behind the attack, and whether it will be launching similar raids in the near future. Some on the Arab street have written off the Azzam Brigade story completely, claiming that Israel fabricated the entire scene in order to justify an upcoming attack against Hezbollah. They feel that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been waiting for a moment in time when he can strike back to right the wrongs done to Israel's psyche and reputation after the 2006 war in Lebanon, where for the first time since 1948, "it did not win a war with the Arabs".

Seemingly laying the ground to pointing the finger at Hezbollah, Israeli Home Front Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said, "The Lebanese government is responsible for everything that happens in Lebanon and everything that exits from its border."

That argument, however, is hard to believe since the IDF would not, especially in chaotic times like these, risk a confrontation with the Lebanese. It is way more preoccupied with monitoring the borders with Syria and Egypt, which have been quiet since 1973, fearing that chaos in both countries might eventually reach the border with Israel.

Some observers argue that Iran plotted the attack, through other proxies in South Lebanon, to remind the world of how chaotic the region would look like "if the Arab Spring continues, or if Syria and Hezbollah no longer control South Lebanon".

A third argument is that certain Gulf countries with strong influence in South Lebanon were behind it, completely over passing Hezbollah, to make it look as if Hezbollah were behind it and to provoke Israel into striking the Islamic group.

Two years ago, the Arab Islamic Resistance emerged, an outfit believed to have links to Gulf countries. It was founded by Sayyed Mohammad Husseini, a Shi'ite who boasts of being an Arab (ostensibly opposed to Hezbollah's Iranian connections) committed to fighting Israel "with an Arab agenda", rather than a Persian one. The new organization, which marketed itself as an alternative toHezbollah, claims to have 3,000 fighters. The organization's launch was first announced on the Saudi channel al-Arabiya and Sayyed Husseini claimed to have received 1,500 membership applications "from the Arab Gulf".

He even founded a TV channel to challenge Hezbollah's official al-Manar, called al-Ourouba (Arabism), appealing to Arab Shi'ites who do not take their cue from Iran.

Strangely, Arab media showed some interest in the border incident then quickly returned to covering developments in Syria and elections in Egypt, underlining how tense the situtation in the Middle East is. Normally news like this would have grip the Arab World at large. Today, it is brushed underneath the rug, because no harm was done and nobody was killed on either side of the border. Somebody, however, must have fired those missiles.

Sami Moubayed is a university professor, historian and editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine in Syria.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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