Lebanese and Israeli soldiers exchanged gunfire earlier today. The clash seemed to have been sparked by Israeli attempts to remove a tree along the border fence. (MSNBC even has a picture). Early reports indicate that four Lebanese were killed, including a journalist and two Israeli soldiers were critically wounded.
You may recall that is was exactly four years ago next week that the Security Council passed Resolution 1701, which called for an end of hostilities between Israeli and Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon. The resolution beefed up a peacekeeping mission known as the UN Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, to confirm the Hezbollah and Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Today, there are over 11,000 uniformed personnel in Southern Lebanon, but it was not imagined that they would have to serve as a buffer between the Lebanese military and the IDF. In fact, their mandate explicitly calls on UNIFIL to assist the Lebanese Government in restoring its effective authority in the area.
Back in 2006, that was the way that Israel, Lebanon, and the Security Council wanted it. Hezbollah vowed to retreat from southern Lebanon and the Israeli government also pledged to withdraw if the Lebanese government, backed by UNIFIL, would step in and prevent Hezbollah from reconstituting itself. That seems to have worked. But now it would appeared that the Lebanese armed forces and the Israeli Defense Force are breathing down each others’ necks.
When two countries want to go to war, lightly armed peacekeepers on the ground cannot much prevent it. What can prevent conflict is the kind of creative diplomacy that lead to the Security Council authorizing resolution 1701 on August 11, 2006. What makes this latest episode somewhat interesting from a diplomatic standpoint is that UNFIL’s mandate is set to expire on August 31. Under normal circumstances, the Security Council would just re-up the mandate with a six month extension. But if these kinds of clashes continue, the council might take the opportunity to “remind” Israel and Lebanon of their “international obligations” not to shoot at each other. So, stay tuned.