BEIRUT: Israel has doubled the rate of overflights in Lebanese airspace so far this year compared to the same period in 2012, according to UNIFIL sources. Additionally, unusual flight patterns have been recorded on several occasions, with at least one resembling a mock attack on Syrian military facilities.
The unusually high rate of Israeli air activity illustrates the level of tension on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border, largely generated by the war in Syria and questions over the fate of Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons and advanced armaments.
Israeli aircraft routinely fly in Lebanese airspace and have done so ever since Israel withdrew from south Lebanon in May 2000. Israel claims the flights are necessary for intelligence-gathering, but the United Nations has repeatedly urged Israel to halt the overflights, saying they are illegal and provocative breaches of Lebanese sovereignty.
The visible surge in overflights since the beginning of the year comes amid repeated warnings by Israeli officials that Hezbollah may receive advanced weapons systems or even chemical weapons from the regime of President Bashar Assad.
There is no evidence Hezbollah has received Syrian chemical weapons or would want them in the first place, assuming it even has the facilities to hold them. But the flight patterns of Israel’s reconnaissance drones appear to reflect these concerns as most of them center on areas of south Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley where Hezbollah has a presence.
To cite a recent example, Israel flew seven drone missions over Lebanon from early afternoon on March 13 to the evening of March 14, circling the southern areas of Zawtar Sharqieh, Qatrani, Nabatieh and the Bekaa Valley areas of Baalbek, Yammouneh, Chmistar and Jabal Sannine.
March 14 also witnessed an Israeli aerial mission that was described by UNIFIL sources as “very unusual.” It included around 25 Israeli jets – a mix of F-16s and F-15s in four separate flights – flying north up the coast of Lebanon before turning south just short of Tartous in Syria. UNIFIL assessed the hourlong mission could have been a training exercise to target Syrian coastal radar and air defense systems and perhaps a muscle-flexing gesture to let Damascus know that the Israeli air force is primed for action.
After the jets returned to Israel, one or more Israeli RC-12s, an electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft, spent some six hours circling off the coast of north Lebanon in what is assumed to have been post-operation monitoring of Syrian military communications.
Israel’s increased aerial activity in Lebanese skies is being closely watched by Hezbollah, which despite the distraction of the war raging in Syria maintains a sharp focus on Israel.
The mutual deterrence that has helped perpetuate calm along the Lebanon-Israel border since the 2006 war and the reluctance of both sides to embark on what is destined to be an even bloodier venture than seven years ago continues to hold. But those certainties are being shaken by events in Syria with the attendant risk of miscalculations by one side or the other which can quickly escalate and run out of control.
Lately, there have been several incidents of reported anti-aircraft missile fire over Lebanon, one in the Bekaa Valley a month ago and two in the area of Rashaya in southeast Lebanon. The most recent reported firing occurred last week with a missile apparently launched from a Syrian military position hitting remote territory beside Mount Hermon. It was unclear whether the Syrian base was inside Syria itself or one of several facilities that the Syrian army continues to maintain on Lebanese soil in Wadi Shashat al-Qadi, six kilometers east of Kfar Qouq.
The circumstances of the three reported missile launches are still unknown. If they were launched at Israeli aircraft, there has been no perceptible change in the pattern of Israeli overflights indicating recognition of a new threat. Nevertheless, the firing of any anti-aircraft missile in Lebanese skies is an extremely rare occurrence.
Israel has also displayed more assertiveness, partly through the enhanced overflights, which last week included launching thermal balloons at night off the coast of Tyre, but especially with the unprecedented airstrike at the end of January against a suspected arms convoy outside Damascus.
The convoy was reportedly carrying advanced anti-aircraft missile systems destined for Hezbollah. The lack of response by Syria and Hezbollah presumably ensures that Israel will stage similar strikes if it receives intelligence of another Syrian arms convoy about to roll toward the border with Lebanon.