BEIRUT: Diplomatic circles in Lebanon are voicing concerns that the Israeli army could mount further ground incursions across the Blue Line similar to the incident at Labbouneh in August when four Israeli soldiers were wounded in a roadside bomb ambush after they crossed into Lebanese territory.
Israeli military officials have privately expressed unhappiness with UNIFIL’s apparent inability to act on Israeli-supplied information to scout out locations in the peacekeepers’ area of responsibility where Israel suspects Hezbollah may be active.
But the Israelis have been warned that if they take matters into their own hands by sending troops into Lebanon on reconnaissance it could lead to further clashes with Hezbollah and risk an unwanted escalation along a border that has remained calm for seven years.
The Israelis have adopted a “worrying tone that the Blue Line is irrelevant when it comes to their security,” a diplomatic source said. The source added that “it risks Hezbollah getting closer to the Blue Line if they know that the Israelis are ready to cross over whenever they want.”
Israel breaches the Blue Line on a near daily basis with its overflights by jets and unmanned reconnaissance drones, but incursions by troops are rare. But in the early hours of Aug. 7, a unit of Golani Brigade soldiers slipped across the border at Labbouneh, the long-disappeared hilltop farm 3.5 kilometers southeast of UNIFIL headquarters in Naqoura. The soldiers had reached 400 meters inside Lebanese territory when they were struck by a roadside bomb. A second bomb was detonated against another group of soldiers who had entered Lebanon to assist their stricken comrades. Four soldiers were wounded in the blasts.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general, subsequently revealed in an interview that the party had gained prior knowledge of the Israeli operation and had set up a roadside bomb ambush. He also warned that the Labbouneh incursion would not be the last by the Israelis.
“The Labbouneh operation will not be the last, and we will not tolerate any land violations of our territory. We will face them with the proper way at any time we know that the Israelis have entered our land,” he told Al-Mayadeen television.
More than two months later, the Labboune incident continues to reverberate. The Israelis make no apology for the incursion, remaining “really defiant” and preferring to shift the blame on UNIFIL for not following up on Israel’s security concerns, diplomatic sources said.
Labbouneh, in particular, was a sealed-off Hezbollah security pocket from August 2002 until the end of the 2006 war. Following the Aug. 14 cease-fire, Hezbollah vacated the hillside and Israeli troops moved in. They discovered just 100 meters from the border and within full view of positions manned by UNIFIL and the Israeli army an elaborate bunker system consisting of firing positions, sleeping quarters, bathrooms and munitions storage rooms.
After the Israelis allowed some Israel-based journalists to inspect the facility, they dynamited it leaving only a few slabs of meter-thick reinforced concrete poking out of the ground.
Doubtless there are other Hezbollah facilities scattered across the densely wooded slopes of the Labbouneh hillside that await discovery. Hezbollah abandoned its positions in the UNIFIL area after the 2006 war – at least those positions that were discovered by the Lebanese Army and UNIFIL that are routinely inspected from time to time.
Whether any of the undiscovered bunkers are still active is unclear. Since 2006, the Israelis have focused their anti- Hezbollah propaganda on the party’s alleged war preparations in villages and towns of the south rather than the valleys and hills where the pre-2006 security pockets were located.
Nevertheless, the Israelis clearly still harbor suspicions that Hezbollah is operating in the rural areas. The purpose of the Labbouneh mission apparently was to inspect a location on the hillside that had been giving off unusual heat signatures which had been picked up by the thermal imaging devices of overhead drones.
Usually, Israeli military officials pass on their suspicions to UNIFIL with a request for the peacekeepers to inspect the location. UNIFIL is obliged to pass the information on to the Lebanese Army before an investigative patrol can be dispatched to the scene.
However, UNIFIL is often informed that the suspect location either lies in private property and is therefore out-of-bounds to the peacekeepers or in a potentially hazardous area such as a minefield or a place infested with unexploded munitions.
On other occasions, by the time permission is given to UNIFIL to access the suspect location enough time has passed for any potential activity contrary to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701 to have halted.
Among the recent list of locations handed to UNIFIL by Israel is a potentially fake “rock” at Labbouneh. Hezbollah uses fiberglass “rocks” to disguise roadside bombs and entrances to bunkers.
Another area of Israeli interest is Wadi Mashawish between Alma Shaab and Teir Harfa. The wadi is a former Hezbollah security pocket, the north-facing slopes of which contain several abandoned Katyusha rocket firing positions and small bunkers.
Earlier in the year, UNIFIL was barred from entering the wadi by men in civilian clothes carrying walkie-talkies on the basis that it was private property.
A third location that has aroused suspicion is in a mined area on the Blue Line between Rmaish and Yaroun.