BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman said Friday a Hezbollah-dispatched reconnaissance plane that flew over Israel underscored the need for a defense strategy that benefits from the resistance party’s strength.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s action drew criticism from March 14 politicians who accused the party of launching the Iranian-made drone into Israeli airspace with the aim of diverting attention from its involvement in the 19-month-old bloody conflict in Syria.
A spokesperson of the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon denied Friday an earlier report that he had suggested there was a risk of an outbreak of a military conflict between Israel and Hezbollah over the drone incident.
UNIFIL’s Andrea Tenenti told The Daily Star that the interview with the Turkish news agency Anatolia, in which he reportedly said the sending of a reconnaissance plane to Israel ran contrary to the provisions of Resolution 1701 which calls on the Lebanese and Israeli sides to maintain calm on the border, had been fabricated.
Earlier, Sleiman, in a statement released by his media office, said: “The dispatching of a drone over Israeli enemy territory shows a dire need to approve a defense strategy that would benefit from the resistance’s capabilities to defend Lebanon.”
He called for establishing “a mechanism to use these capabilities exclusively, and under any circumstances in line with the Army’s plans and its defense needs and the national interest.”
Sleiman was commenting on Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah’s televised speech Thursday in which he confirmed that the party was behind the drone that Israel shot down over the weekend and warned that the operation would not be the party’s last.
Nasrallah said the drone flight over Israel was in response to the Jewish state’s repeated aerial violations of Lebanon’s airspace.
He pointed out that Israel had violated Lebanese airspace 20,864 times since U.N. Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon, was adopted six years ago.
Although Israeli warplanes shot down the unmanned plane after it flew some 55 kilometers into Israel, the incident marked a rare breach of the Jewish state’s tightly guarded airspace.
Commenting on the drone incident, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour said in a statement: “Israel is the last one to have the right to complain to the Security Council because it is an aggressive state that carries out its daily aggression and violations against Lebanon.”
In his statement, Sleiman called for United Nations action to stop the Israeli violations of the Lebanese airspace. “The daily Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty and airspace are the subject Lebanon’s permanent complaints with the Security Council,” the president said.
“It is urgent today that [these violations] be immediately stopped and brought to an end in implementation of Resolution 1701 and in order to maintain peace and security in the region,” Sleiman added.
Israel routinely sends F-16 fighter planes over Lebanon, in violation of Resolution 1701. The Israeli planes have often broken the sound barrier over Beirut and other places as a show of strength, most recently after the drone incident.
Last month, Sleiman put forward during a National Dialogue session a blueprint for a defense strategy that would allow Hezbollah to keep its arms but place them under the command of the Lebanese Army, which would have exclusive authority to use force.
Under the proposal, Hezbollah would not hand its arms over to the Army, as demanded by the opposition March 14 coalition, nor would there be coordination between the resistance and the Army, the defense strategy that Hezbollah has backed.
Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Salim al-Hoss hailed the drone flight over Israel. ]
“The distance the plane crossed before being detected and shot down was enough to indicate the resistance has been able to develop its technical capabilities, which enabled it to confront the Israeli challenges with high efficiency,” Hoss said in a statement.
However, the drone incident was criticized by opposition March 14 politicians who accused Hezbollah of serving Iran’s interests and trying to divert attention from the party’s involvement in the fighting in Syria .
Tripoli MP Samir Jisr from former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s parliamentary Future bloc described the drone flight over Israel as “a qualitative operation.”
“Flying a reconnaissance plane over Israel is intended to divert attention away from the Syrian events and the involvement of Hezbollah’s members in them,” Jisr told the Voice of Lebanon radio station.
Referring to Hezbollah fighters reportedly killed in the fighting in Syria, Jisr said: “It’s the people’s right to ask where those whom Hezbollah claimed were killed while performing their jihadist duty had died.”
Earlier this month, Hezbollah buried two of its fighters who local sources said were killed near a Syrian border town. Hezbollah acknowledged the death of only one fighter and said he was a commander who “died while performing his jihad duties.”
Nasrallah said Thursday that the commander, Ali Hussein Nassif, had been killed in a Syrian border town inhabited by Lebanese that was frequently bombarded by Syrian rebels.
Syrian opposition forces have repeatedly accused Hezbollah of supporting the Assad regime’s forces in their crackdown against rebels.
According to rebels, members of Hezbollah have died in Syria’s clashes before being returned to Lebanon for burial. The party, however, has denied such accusations.
Future MP Ahmad Fatfat slammed Hezbollah’s operation, saying Nasrallah’s speech proved that Lebanon would remain an “Iranian platform” as long as Iran wanted that.
“This is really a very serious situation as Nasrallah tried to eliminate the meaning of the Lebanese state, as if he is seeking to drag Israel [into war],” Fatfat said in remarks to a local TV.
“He [Nasrallah] is also supporting the Syrian regime by all means when he affirmed that Hezbollah has members fighting in certain villages in Syria,” he added.
Lebanese Forces lawmaker Antoine Zahra said the drone flight over Israel was intended to highlight Hezbollah’s regional role and was an attempt to compensate the losses suffered by the Iran-Syria axis, including Hezbollah.
Speaking to the Free Lebanon radio station, Zahra said Nasrallah’s speech was aimed at reassuring the party’s supporters rather than the Lebanese in the face of “retreats” suffered by Hezbollah’s allies, Iran and Syria.
He added that Nasrallah’s speech had alarmed the rest of the Lebanese that the Hezbollah chief, at “the request of the Iranian or Syrian regime, would start a war somewhere in an attempt to reduce pressure on them and regain the legitimacy of the resistance after it shifted to defending the Syrian regime or Iran’s regional project from Lebanon.”