TYRE, Lebanon: The three rocket barrages from south Lebanon since Friday may have caused little damage and no casualties in Israel, but they represent the most intense flurry of cross-border rocket fire since the end of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
That fact alone illustrates just how stable and calm the border has remained since the month-long conflict eight years ago. The Lebanese army and UNIFIL have stepped up their anti-rocket patrols, including greater presence of UNIFIL vehicles along the roads at night in an effort to deter would-be rocket launchers.
Nevertheless, despite the uptick in rocket fire triggered by the latest Israel-Hamas confrontation in Gaza, the anonymous rocket attacks are unlikely to seriously destabilize the Lebanon-Israel border. Both Hezbollah and Israel have no desire at the current time to be drawn into a debilitating encounter when both parties are engaged in conflicts elsewhere.
The three rocket attacks have followed much the same pattern as previous incidents post-2006. The stretch of orange orchards and banana plantations along the coast south of Tyre, specifically between Ras al-Ain and Wadi Hamoul near Naqoura, have been used in the past to fire rockets toward Nahariyah in northern Israel. Saturday’s rocket launch originated 2 kilometers south of the Rashidieh Palestinian refugee camp close to the beach. Only one of the three 122mm rockets fired reached Israel, exploding harmlessly between Shelomi and Nahariyah. The rocket firing early Monday occurred two kilometers southwest of Qlaya beside a narrow lane cutting through an orange orchard. Two of the three rockets launched landed in the sea. The third impacted near Shelomi. Friday’s attack emanated from olive groves east of Khiam, close to the Ain Arab-Meri road, an area that has been the source of past rocket attacks toward northern Galilee.
The attacks also appear to share a degree of amateurism in using crude launch platforms of plastic tubing or wooden planks. In the case of Friday’s attack, a 107mm rocket exploded prematurely wounding one of the perpetrators which allowed him to be identified and arrested when he sought treatment at a hospital.
There is an element of the routine in such attacks; a cross-border rocket launch as a reaction to Israel’s punishing air strikes against Gaza was widely expected. Israel understands the rules of the game when it comes to isolated and amateurish rocket salvos from Lebanon and responds accordingly. Israeli press reports said that the Israeli army shelled the sources of rocket fire in Lebanon. In fact, the Israeli military avoided striking the launch sites – even though its counter-battery radars should have picked up the origin of fire. Instead, in response to Friday’s rocket attack, the Israeli artillery gunners shelled the wooded slopes of a hill near Kfar Shuba, 5 kilometers northeast of the rocket launching site. Similarly, in retaliation to the rocket attacks Saturday and Monday, the Israeli army shelled unpopulated wadis between Majdal Zoun, Azzieh, Shamaa, Zibdin and Teir Harfa – nine and 4.5 kilometers distance respectively from the two rocket launch sites.
Israel has no wish to become embroiled in a new front any more than Hezbollah which explains the efforts to avoid any possibility of incurring civilian casualties in Lebanon which could drag Hezbollah into an escalation. Israel demonstrated similar forbearance last August after the Abdullah al-Azzam Brigades fired four extended-range 122mm Grads across the border from a location just south of Tyre. Instead of shelling the launch site, which given its proximity to Tyre raised the risk of inadvertent civilian casualties, the Israelis chose to bomb the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command base at Naameh, south of Beirut, a traditional recipient of Israeli displeasure when it can find no other more appropriate target.
It is easy to make light of these isolated rocket attacks as they carry a limited risk of catalyzing an escalation along the border. Nevertheless, Timur Goksel, a former long-serving UNIFIL official, used to place great standing in “local dynamics” in which events would take on a life of their own, dragging both Hezbollah and Israel into escalations of violence that served the interests of neither side. If one of these Grad rockets were to strike a vehicle, house or school and cause civilian fatalities, Israel would be forced into a stronger response than its wink-wink, nudge-nudge shelling of empty wadis and hillsides. That would also carry an increased risk of causing casualties on the Lebanese side. During the 1990s when Israel was occupying south Lebanon, dozens of mini escalations had their origins in the most minor of incidents.