Tensions were on the rise along the Israeli-Lebanese border this quarter, with the Israeli government increasingly concerned about alleged Iranian influence in Lebanon and the Lebanese government highlighting Israel’s encroachment on its territory.
The first major incident came on 1/14 when Hamas official Mohammed Hamdan was seriously injured in a car bombing in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. In the immediate aftermath, Hamas both denied Hamdan’s affiliation with the organization and accused Israel of perpetrating the assassination attempt. “Israel is the only one that could benefit from harming Lebanon’s security,” the organization said in a statement on the same day. While Israel did not take responsibility for the attack, Defense Minister Lieberman argued a few days later (1/19) that Hamas was “finding it difficult to launch operations from the Gaza Strip” and was therefore “trying to open new fronts [. . .] first and foremost in southern Lebanon.” Lebanese intelligence services later identified four people allegedly responsible for the 1/14 assassination attempt, according to news reports from Beirut on 1/29. Two were Lebanese nationals and two were Israeli “agents.”
As the investigation proceeded, an IDF spokesperson confirmed (1/27) that Israeli forces were actively conducting psychological warfare against Hezbollah via social media. The contentious climate cast a pall over a 2/5 meeting between Maj. Gen. Michael Beary, head of mission and force commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), and senior IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) officials. “Discussions centered on the liaison and coordination arrangements provided by UNIFIL to ensure that there is no misunderstanding or miscalculation along the Blue Line in order to ensure a continued climate of calm and stability,” a UNIFIL statement read, referring to the UN-designated border between Israel and Lebanon.“There has been a great deal of activity along the Blue Line,” Beary said (2/5), praising “both parties” for their restraint.
Despite Beary’s assurances, two key issues proved particularly thorny in the ensuing weeks: the proposed route of a new Israeli border fence and Lebanon’s planned exploration of offshore oil and gas reserves. In 12/2017, the Lebanese government approved a bid from a French, Italian, and Russian consortium to explore a disputed area off the coast for energy resources. In a statement released after the meeting, the LAF reasserted Lebanese sovereignty over the disputed area and rejected the proposed route of an Israeli border wall, arguing that it violated Lebanese sovereignty. Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri then agreed (2/6) to take steps at “various regional and international levels to prevent Israel from building the cement wall [. . .] and from the possibility of infringing on Lebanon’s oil and gas wealth and its waters.”Israel’s energy minister, Yuval Steinitz, said (2/7) that Israel hoped for a diplomatic solution, but insisted that it would have to be on Israeli terms. “They should not make any threats, though, and definitely not infiltrate our economic waters,” he added.“If, heaven forbid, we are attacked, the response would be a lot more severe, quick and unequivocal than in the past.” Hours after Steinitz’s comments appeared, Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council ordered the LAF to prevent Israel from erecting a wall on Lebanese territory. In a statement, the council said that the Lebanese army had been granted the necessary “political backing to deter any Israeli aggression on the border,” both on land and at sea. There were reports (2/8) of the United States and other international parties intervening to mediate but it remained unclear what the terms of a compromise on either issue might look like by the end of the quarter.