Creating people's geographies
In the aftermath of the bloody border skirmish between Lebanon and Israel, much of the Anglophone press seems to have dutifully accepted the UN’s assertion that the hapless tree at the centre of it all was on the Israeli side. Blogs have followed suit, publishing retractions or corrections to their earlier posts that the border had been breached by the IDF. But, as so often is the case, the devil is in the detail. The tree was located north of the Israeli self-erected ‘technical fence’, and south of the Blue Line. As Bart Peeters points out, the blue line is not an international border, nor an internationally recognised border, but simply an armistice line (and a contested one at that) set up by the UN in 2000 to mark the line of the Israeli withdrawal from its 18 year occupation of the south of Lebanon. The Blue Line is disputed by both Lebanon and Israel in many places. The tree, now removed, was located in a legal no-man’s land and apparently has no legal border status.
Particularly in this case, the UN has resembled a seriously frazzled parent who, faced with a normal child and a rogue child with whom it seeks to regain some influence, apparently makes a small but disingenuous concession in a desperate and expedient attempt to quell the ‘bad apple’ child’s accusations that the parent is biased towards the victimised normal child. “See? I’m not really biased or taking sides”, the international body is effectively signalling in this misguided attempt at appearing even-handed. The issue of who started this particular incident — was it Israel’s provocation because they went ahead with the tree-cutting, refusing a UN request to further delay it until it could be cleared with the Lebanese side, or Lebanon because it fired warning shots and the possible first fatal shooting? — has to be located against the backdrop of literally thousands of ongoing Israeli violations of UNSC 1701, that fragile ceasefire that formally ended the hafrada regime’s last destructive assault on Lebanon in 2006.
This incident clearly illustrates the untenability of a status quo predicated upon, from the Israeli side, military deterrence and informal arrangements in the lack of a clearly defined border. For the Lebanese, it may also illustrate the treachery of relying on the UN as an arbiter, though the incident has also had a rallying effect in support for the LAF and served to deflect attention from the Special Tribunal for Lebanon findings set to be front-page news again on Monday. It is worth remembering that the Blue Line was signed off on with a great deal of reservation by the Lebanese. As the bloggers at Friday Lunch Club do well to point out, here is the actual conversation between then Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright about the Blue Line in 2000, illustrating its hurried and fraught establishment (another account detailing the episode can be found here) –
Madeline Albright to President Emile Lahoud: “The Israelis pulled out, and we need you to ratify that so that we can proceed at the UN …”
Lahoud: “but Mrs. Secretary, they have not … I have an officer at the border who informs me that over a million square meters are still occupied…”
Albright: “… you sign off on the ‘withdrawal’… and I promise you, we’ll deal with that later…”
Lahoud: “No, I will not … Unless the withdrawal is complete, I will not allow it…”
Albright: “DO YOU KNOW WHO YOU’RE TALKING TO? I am the representative of the government of the USA!”
Lahoud: “And I am very tired (after 3:00AM) and I need to go to bed… Goodnight!”
Most of the territory was later evacuated prior to ratification, but the government of Lebanon signed off “with reservations.”
According to Lebanese political analyst Michel Samaha (as cited by Shmaysani), “Annan and then US Secretary of State Madeline Albright conspired to send Terje Rød-Larsen to delineate a Blue Line instead of implementing resolution 425. The aim was to make the pullout look like a full withdrawal according to the Truce Line. So Larsen invented the Blue Line and the Lebanese government cried foul because of the many gaps that kept Lebanese areas, including strategic spots and water sources, under occupation.”
Ret. Gen. Amine Hotait, who was the head of the committee to verify the Israeli pullout, told Al-Manar that
Our main concern was to determine the international border, but the Israeli enemy had changed the landmarks in several border areas. We started our mission based on official maps, but the Israelis made use of the so called ‘rolling borders’ and sought to delineate a new line that served its avarice, so it demanded a delineation based on more advanced methods. The United Nations adopted the Blue Line but we refused to recognize it as the international border since it missed at least 13 points. After tough negotiations we managed to gain back ten points, and three points remained outstanding: Rmeish, Odaisseh, and Metula.
And where did the incident happen? Right near Odaisseh. The village is shown below where the site of the incident is marked in red (as seen from Israel: source).
Robert Fisk, to his credit, is one of the few who have qualified their analyses with recognition of this basic fact about the Blue Line and the lack of a border. Daniel Levy also has a fair summation of the situation and analysis on the perceived implications.
In the Israeli press, two pieces are worth mentioning. The first is an account by Nahum Barne in Yedioth Ahronoth (translated from Hebrew) which is revealing of the IDF attitude and segues well into the second piece by Gideon Levy in ‘Only We’re Allowed‘:
Maj. Gen. Eisenkot happened to be in the headquarters of Division 91 in Biranit at the time. He took control of the incident immediately. Eisenkot aspired to an outcome that would take a heavy toll from the Lebanese army, but would also not harm civilians and UN soldiers and would not drag the sides into war.
The shells that the tank fired did nothing but make noise. Therefore, Eisenkot ordered an attack on the forward outpost of the Lebanese army in the mountain located behind [the incident], Nabi al-Awadi. The Lebanese army outpost in the village Taibe was also attacked. Helicopter gunships and artillery were deployed.
The outcome was disappointing, as far as OC Northern Command was concerned. On the Lebanese side, there was a total count of five dead, four soldiers and a civilian. He expected a number three times as high, a number that would make it clear to Lebanon that such incidents have a price.
As one state grapples with the fall-out of the death of Hariri (and the other the death of Harari), Gideon Levy writes:
In this overheated atmosphere the IDF should have been careful when lighting its matches. UNIFIL requests a delay of an operation? The area is explosive? The work should have been postponed. Maybe the Lebanese Army is more determined now to protect its country’s sovereignty – that is not only its right, but its duty – and a Lebanese commander who sees the IDF operating across the fence might give an order to shoot, even unjustifiably.
Who better than the IDF knows the pattern of shooting at any real or imagined violation? Just ask the soldiers at the separation fence or guarding Gaza. But Israel arrogantly dismissed UNIFIL’s request for a delay.
It’s the same arrogance behind the demand that the U.S. and France stop arming the Lebanese military. Only our military is allowed to build up arms. After years in which Israel demanded that the Lebanese Army take responsibility for what is happening in southern Lebanon, it is now doing so and we’ve changed our tune. Why? Because it stopped behaving like Israel’s subcontractor and is starting to act like the army of a sovereign state.
And that’s forbidden, of course. After the guns fall silent, the cry goes up again here to strike another “heavy blow” against Lebanon to “deter” it – maybe some more of the destruction that was inflicted on Beirut’s Dahiya neighborhood.
Three Lebanese killed, including a journalist, are not enough of a response to the killing of our battalion commander. We want more. Lebanon must learn a lesson, and we will teach it.
And what about us? We don’t have any lessons to learn. We’ll continue to ignore UNIFIL, ignore the Lebanese Army and its new brigade commander, who has the nerve to think that his job is to protect his country’s sovereignty.
Rest in peace, Sergeant Robert Elias al Ashi and Sergeant Abdullah Mohammad al Tufaili, journalist Assaf Abou Rahhal and Lieutenant Colonel Dov Harari.
ADDENDUM. Human Province has an interview with Timur Goksel, former spokesman and currently advisor to UNIFIL, that is worth reading. Here is an excerpt:
TG: I think UNIFIL did its part. Israelis said they wanted to prune the tree that was beyond their fence on technically on Israeli territory. UNIFIL informed LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces]. LAF said NOT TODAY. NOT GIVEN ADEQUATE NOTICE AS PER RULES. UNIFIL informed IDF not to do it but IDF, as per their power play, is not inclined to take any instructions from UNIFIL and LAF. So they went ahead and started the operation. Lebanese officers in the region have been feeling humiliated by this IDF attitude for some time. LAF feels that they always have to back down, accommodate the Israelis. But they too have an audience, which has been getting increasingly critical of this what they see as a meek attitude. So, someone finally said ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. For me, this the background to the incident, which had some extremely naive analysts declaring the onset of a regional war.
HP: UNIFIL has come out to say that the Israelis were on their side of the blue line. Can you explain to us a little how the blue line relates to the security fence in the picture that we’ve all seen on television or online?
TG: When UN marked the Blue Line in 2000 to determine the Israeli withdrawal (it was not a border demarcation) with the participation and consent of the two parties, it was discovered that in certain locations, not many, the Israeli security fence erected according to the lay of the land, did not correspond to the Blue Line. During the occupation years, israel had built fences inside Lebanon, which they had to give up of course. They did not want to put up a new fence in those places. Lebanon did not want to put up a fence along a border that is not officially demarcated. So, UN painted some stones blue to say this is the border, while the fence was up to 200 metres to the south. The paint peeled away in couple of months.
The shepherds, farmers, etc. (including myself) always get confused because you instinctively think the fence is the border not a couple of stones with faded blue paint. Israel usually refrained from crossing the fence for safety reasons of course but became more aggressive in keeping intruders away after 2006 when they felt that especially Hizbullah operatives were operating in that what the IDF calls “the enclave.”
ADDENDUM II. The following from the Boston Globe is worth highlighting:
Ronith Daher, 32, a Lebanese journalist who was at the scene, said she saw a UNIFIL peacekeeper ask Israel not to allow the Israeli soldier to cross the fence and warned them the Lebanese troops would open fire. A number of journalists had gathered at the site after getting word UNIFIL was trying to resolve the situation.
This suggests that Lebanese journalists only started arriving after word of Israeli refusal to cooperate: not, as Israeli propaganda would have us believe, because the Lebanese had somehow pre-planned this incident all along, and had brought journalists along with them, including one that met his death.