BEIRUT: Details of the mysterious explosion on the southern border with Israel Wednesday remain elusive, but it appears that the four Israeli soldiers wounded in the blast near Naqoura had staged an incursion into Lebanese territory even if the reason is unclear.
The initial clue that the Israelis may have been caught breaching the United Nations-delineated Blue Line could be found in the low-key reaction by the Israeli army and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
An Israeli military spokesman said in vague terms that four soldiers had been wounded during “overnight activity adjacent to the northern border” without specifying the exact location, the type of activity, or the unit to which the soldiers belong.
Netanyahu later said that Israel would “continue to act responsibly” to secure its border with Lebanon. The unusual use of the word “responsibly” suggests he was pre-emptively deflecting accusations that the Israeli soldiers had been engaged in an action counter to Security Council Resolution 1701.
Certainly, there were no accusations made by Israeli officials that the soldiers were on Israeli soil and had been targeted by Hezbollah or an armed group; also, there were no suggestions that it had been an accident.
It was also unclear initially what caused the explosion, although the clue could lie in how far the Israeli troops had penetrated Lebanese territory before the blast occurred.
The Lebanese Army said the Israeli patrol had breached the Blue Line to a depth of 400 meters when the explosion occurred. Other reports said the distance was as little as 6 meters from the Blue Line. If the distance was closer to the latter figure, it is possible that the soldiers tripped off one of their own old land mines. A belt of land mines between 50 and 185 meters deep exists on the northern edge of the Blue Line from near the coast at Ras Naqoura to the UNIFIL position just east of the long-disappeared hamlet of Labbouneh, a distance of about 4.5 kilometers. The minefield is one of a string of mined areas running along the border that were installed by Israeli forces from the mid-1970s, when they had de facto control over much of the border area. Today, a patrol track used by the Lebanese Army marks the northern edge of the mined area between Ras Naqoura and Labbouneh.
However, if the distance reached by the Israeli soldiers was closer to the 400 meters cited by the Lebanese Army, then alternative explanations for the blast arise. One is an unlucky encounter with unexploded ordnance, such as cluster bombs left over from the 2006 war. The U.N.’s Mine Action Coordination Center recorded at least two cluster bomb strikes in the Labbouneh area. Another alternative is that the soldiers triggered a defensive improvised explosive device set up by Hezbollah for just such eventualities.
In the past, Hezbollah has employed belly charges, consisting of dozens or hundreds of kilograms of explosive buried under roads leading from the border – the devices are intended to be used against Israeli armored vehicles that cross into Lebanon. One such belly charge was inadvertently discovered by a curious shepherd on a lane leading to the Shebaa Farms area in June 2002.
Another destroyed an Israeli Merkava tank near Aita al-Shaab on July 12, 2006, the first day of the month-long war. Setting up Claymore-style defensive IEDs at potential breach points along remoter parts of the Blue Line also would be in keeping with Hezbollah’s operational procedure. There is at least one footpath, dating from the years of Israeli occupation before 2000, that runs north from an Israeli communications base at Labbouneh through the border minefield and across the Lebanese Army patrol track before disappearing into thick brush. Did the Israeli soldiers penetrate Lebanese territory via that path and had Hezbollah already emplaced an IED alongside it in anticipation of a breach at that location?
As to the purpose of the Israeli incursion, security sources in Lebanon speculate that it could have been related to reconnaissance and intelligence gathering. Since the 2006 war, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army have uncovered several Israeli monitoring devices, including laser range-finders, cameras and transmitters, as far from the border as the Sannine and Barouk mountains in addition to one near Naqoura.
Alternatively, it could have been Hezbollah’s own communications system that was the target of the incursion.
There have been several instances since 2006 of Israeli wiretapping devices being discovered on Hezbollah’s fiber-optic communications cables in the south.
For now, the curious incident at Labbouneh remains rooted mostly in speculation than hard fact.
But it does serve as a reminder that despite Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria and Israel’s apprehension over a potential deterioration along the Golan Heights front, that neither protagonist is ignoring the other along their traditional theater of conflict – the Lebanon-Israel border.