Related Quarterly Updates

In ‘Ayn al-Hilwa r.c., a brief outbreak of violence between Islamist groups and Fatah’s security forces aggravated tensions in the overcrowded locality. As the quarter opened, ‘Ayn al-Hilwa housed some 80,000 Palestinian refugees, including 10,000 who had fled the conflict in Syria, straining the camp’s infrastructure. The violence began on 8/22, when the Islamist group Jund al-Sham, which had ties to similar groups in Syria, attempted to assassinate a Fatah military leader at a funeral. There were periodic confrontations between the 2 groups throughout 2015, but when Fatah responded to the attempted assassination by accusing all Islamist factions in the camp of complicity, gunfights in the camp’s alleys and streets ensued (8/22–27). According to the Electronic Intifada on 9/3, 6 people were killed, more than 70 injured, and around 3,000 displaced, many of them fleeing to the nearby Mieh Mieh r.c. (Al-Monitor, 9/4).

After the single major cross-border incident of the quarter on 10/26 (see Chronology for details), the IDF was reportedly preparing for a possible return to full-scale violence on Israel’s n. border with Lebanon. There were no other signs of an imminent escalation, but Israeli media reports indicated that the IDF was at least considering the possibility of another war with Hezbollah. According to Ynet on 10/27, the IDF was worried that the 10/26 attack, in which unidentified Lebanese assailants driving along the border opened fire on Israeli forces patrolling the other side, exposed a weak point in Israel’s defenses. Top IDF officials surmised that Hezbollah might send foot soldiers to capture small areas of territory at other similar weak points along the border. To defend against that eventuality, they said, the IDF was working on a 3-year, 30-km border defense project, including reinforced concrete barriers, fortified towers, and other security upgrades. The IDF was also devising a contingency plan in the event of another war with Hezbollah, according to Haaretz on 10/18. Deviating from standard Israeli practice, the plan included an outline for evacuating 78,000 residents of the area along the border with Lebanon.

Another major development was the announcement that Lebanon had finally elected a new head of state, former Gen. Michel Aoun. After 4 rounds of voting, Lebanon’s parliament formally elevated Aoun to the presidency on 10/13, after the office had been vacant for 2.5 years. Although it is still unclear how Aoun’s presidency might alter Lebanon’s position on Israel, the incoming president alluded to a possible conflict with the IDF, vowing to free “what is left of our lands under Israeli occupation.” Aoun was reported as saying, “We will always be ready to help and support the resistance forces to liberate every last meter of Lebanese territory that has not yet been returned.” Aoun is an ally of Hezbollah, having signed a partnership agreement between his party, the Free Patriotic Movement, and the group in 2006.

Following mos. of interfactional tension and violence in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh r.c. (see JPS 45 [2]), the Lebanese army began constructing a new wall around the camp on 11/20. A military spokesman said (11/22) this was a “security measure” to stop “the infiltration of terrorists” into the camp, and a Fatah security official confirmed (11/22) that the various Palestinian factions had met with the Lebanese military and decided that this was “the best decision” for the camp’s protection. ‘Ayn al-Hilweh, with its 60,000 residents, is already encircled by metal fences and Lebanese army checkpoints.

Construction of the wall quickly met with opposition, including from some Palestinian factions that had reportedly approved the plan. Hamas issued a statement (11/22) saying that it was an “unacceptable step that threatens the future of Palestinian refugees and compounds their suffering.” Other critics in the camp compared it to Israel’s separation wall. After the Lebanese army “paused” construction, according to a spokesperson (11/23), the work came to a complete halt following another meeting between army officials and reps. of the Palestinian factions on 11/24. The Palestinians reportedly agreed to put in place procedures to improve the “security situation” throughout Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps, according to a statement released after the meeting. It was unclear what procedures would be implemented in place of the wall.

Shortly after the wall issue was resolved, another outbreak of violence shook the camp. Lebanese media reported that a Palestinian named Samer Hamid was “assassinated” on 12/21. Residents of the camp then exchanged fire, leading to the death of 2 more Palestinians and resulting in 4 injuries. At least 1 more Palestinian was injured as tensions remained high over the next 24 hours, leading the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to suspend services “until further notice” on 12/22. UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness wrote (12/22) that “violent incidents . . . continue to shock and frighten camp residents, they prevent children going to school and patients going to clinics; and they threaten the safety and security of civilians and their ability to access a range of services.” The Daily Star reported “cautious calm” in the camp on 12/24, but sporadic bouts of violence continued throughout the rest of the quarter, including 1 on 1/15 resulting in the injury of an UNRWA staffer.

Also of note: Lebanese emigré businessman Amine Bakri was killed by 3 unidentified gunmen outside his furniture factory in Angola on 1/2. Lebanese pres. Michel Aoun said (1/4) that Israeli Mossad agents may have been responsible, but no evidence backing his claim came to light.

Tensions flared along the Israeli-Lebanese border this quarter, which observers attributed to Lebanese pres. Michel Aoun’s friendly ties with Hezbollah (see JPS 46 [2]). The escalation began late last quarter when Aoun said (2/12) in an interview on Egyptian TV that Hezbollah played a “complementary role to the Lebanese army,” and that “as long as the Lebanese army is not strong enough to battle Israel . . . we feel the need for its existence.” His comments fueled speculation in the Israeli press that the Lebanese army had started coordinating with Hezbollah along the border between the 2 countries. The following week, Israel’s UN amb., Danny Danon, sent a protest letter to UN secy.-gen. António Guterres alleging potential Lebanese violations of UN Security Council Res. 1701, which prohibits Lebanon from fielding militias on the border, including Hezbollah (see Doc. A2 in JPS 36 [1]). Aoun responded (2/18) that “any attempt to hurt Lebanese sovereignty or expose the Lebanese to danger will find the appropriate response.” He denounced Danon’s letter as a “masked attempt to threaten security and stability” in s. Lebanon. Around the same time, Hezbollah secy.-gen. Hassan Nasrallah told (2/16) a rally that Israel’s nuclear weapons facility at Dimona represented a “threat to the entire region,” and that Hezbollah would “turn it into a threat to Israel.” His comments prompted the Israeli govt. to send a backchannel message to Hezbollah threatening to retaliate in response to any aggression (al-Hayat, 2/19). While the rhetoric on both sides intensified at various times during the quarter, there were no serious indications that any of the parties was interested in escalating it to violent confrontation.

While Lebanese and Israeli leaders were rattling their sabers, violence erupted once again in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon. Fatah security forces and armed mbrs. of local Islamist groups clashed in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh refugee camp (r.c.) on 2/25, leading to 3 injuries and forcing the closure of UNRWA’s schools and health facilities in the area. Although it is not clear what sparked the violence, the clashes coincided with Abbas’s visit to Lebanon and a visit to ‘Ayn al-Hilweh by the wife of exiled Fatah leader Mohammad Dahlan. After a brief cease-fire on 2/26, a bomb detonated outside a call center in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh on 2/27, sparking a fresh round of clashes before the 2 sides reached another truce on 2/28 (2 Palestinians died of injuries sustained in the 2/27 clashes). The heads of various Palestinian factions in Lebanon, including Fatah and Hamas, then met (2/28) at the Palestinian Embassy in Beirut to address the persistent violence plaguing ‘Ayn al-Hilweh (see JPS 46 [3]). They issued a joint statement (3/2) demanding that Islamists wanted by the Lebanese authorities leave the camp, and reiterating their commitment to security and stability in all Palestinian camps across Lebanon. PLO secy. Fathi Abu al-Aradat added (3/2) that the Palestinian leaders had reached an agreement with the Lebanese govt. to form a joint security force to flush out wanted Islamists in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh, and turn them over to the Lebanese authorities.

Calm in the camp held for about 3 weeks before a new round of clashes broke out on 3/23–24. Two Palestinians were killed and 4 were injured in the renewed clashes. A 3d Palestinian died in the camp on 3/24, but Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that his injures stemmed from an unrelated, personal dispute. When the joint Palestinian force deployed in the camp on 4/7, an Islamist group attacked them, leading to 5 straight days of fighting; at least 10 Palestinians were killed, including 1 child, and more than 50 were injured. By 4/11, the Islamists had reportedly lost control of the perimeter around their base in the al-Tira neighborhood of the r.c. Their leader, Bilal Badr, evaded capture, and although the fighting subsided, his followers remained loyal to him. The joint force increased its numbers from 100 to 150 to regain control of alTira, vowing to maintain their presence until Badr was arrested.

The security situation in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh had stabilized by 4/14, according to UNRWA, and the agency was able to resume its services to residents. With Badr at large, however, tensions lingered. His followers threatened to bomb of the joint force’s positions nr. al-Tira on 5/9, and Badr himself was reportedly demanding cash payments—approximately $30,000 up front and $6,000 per mo. after that—to end his campaign (Daily Star, 5/9).

Persistent tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border led to a minor diplomatic conflict in late-6/2017. The dir. of Israel’s military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi, on 6/22, and later other Israeli officials, accused Hezbollah of building new observation posts and establishing new weapons production facilities in s. Lebanon with Iranian funding. “We cannot remain indifferent to this and we don’t,” Halevi said. He also called on the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), the peacekeeping unit established in 1978 to monitor the Israel-Lebanon border, to take action. A UN spokesperson responded the next day: “UNIFIL has not observed any unauthorized armed persons at the location or found any basis to report a violation.” The UN response did nothing to quell Israeli fears about Iranian activities in Lebanon, however. On 6/24, Israeli media reported that the govt. had sent backchannel messages to Tehran, via European diplomats, conveying how seriously Tel Aviv was taking the new alleged weapons production facilities. “[We] won’t tolerate it,” the messages reportedly said.

Internal Lebanese politics became the focal point of longstanding regional tensions at the end of the quarter (see “Regional Affairs” below). But before PM Hariri’s unexpected resignation in Riyadh on 11/4, tensions in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the country, again broke out into full-fledged violence.

Earlier in the year, UNRWA had been forced to temporarily suspend (2/25) services in the camp amid weeks of deadly clashes between Fatah security forces and armed Islamists led by Bilal Badr (see JPS 46 [4]). For 4 mos., an uneasy calm held in the camp. Then, on 8/17, armed fighters affiliated with Badr opened fire on a force of joint Lebanese-Palestinian security troops that was established after the previous round of clashes. Six Palestinians were killed and at least 17 were injured in 1 week of fighting (8/17–23), prompting Hamas and Fatah officials to hold an emergency meeting on 8/22. According to Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA), there were more talks on a potential cease-fire on 8/23. By the end of that day, however, a “cautious calm” had returned to the camp, with only a few breaches from occasional shelling and bursts of gunfire (NNA, 8/23).

There were no further reports of violence in the camp through the end of the quarter, but there was 1 more noteworthy development: on 11/13, Badr’s brother, Kamal Badr, turned himself into Lebanese armed forces at the s. entrance of the camp. It was unclear why he did so or if his incarceration would have any effect on the unrest in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh.

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.

With U.S. support, Israel and Lebanon pursued a diplomatic resolution to the issues driving tensions along their shared border last quarter, specifically the proposed route of a new Israeli border fence and Lebanon’s planned exploration for offshore oil and gas in the eastern Mediterranean (see JPS 47 [3]). On 3/8, Reuters reported that Lebanese and Israeli officials were meeting on a near-daily basis. “There is a full engagement from all the sides,” said a spokesperson for the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). “The dialogue is open. No one has ever walked out from these meetings.”

There were no reports of a breakthrough by the end of the quarter, but there was no further escalation of tensions either, despite minor provocations on both sides. During a conference in Rome on 3/15, Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced a new deployment of the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon. “While we are thinking of ways to move from a state of cessation of hostilities to a state of permanent cease-fire, Israel continues to make plans to build walls . . . along the blue line,” he added. Then, on 3/31, an Israeli Hermes 450 drone crashed in southern Lebanon. The Hermes 450 was known for carrying out assassinations, according to foreign sources (Haaretz, 3/31), and this particular drone was armed with four missiles, according to the local Lebanese press.

A Hezbollah Victory

As the Israel-Lebanon border remained largely uneventful, Hezbollah and its allies claimed a victory in the first Lebanese parliamentary election since 2009. They won (5/6) approximately a third of the plenum’s 128 seats, which Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah celebrated (5/7) as a “political and moral victory for the resistance.” Hariri’s Future Movement Party lost 11 of its 32 seats, but it was still the largest Sunni bloc, and the prime minister was expected to return for another term. “My hand is extended to every Lebanese who participated in the elections to preserve stability and create jobs,” Hariri said (5/7), pledging to continue working closely with Lebanese president Michel Aoun.

                (For update of Operation Northern Shield see Israel).

             Israel declared that it had finished Operation Northern Shield, destroying tunnels leading from Lebanon to Israel on 13 January (see Israel). However, Israel continued to construct a wall along the border of Lebanon which the Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations (UN) filed a complaint about to the UN Security Council, charging that Israel has been constructing parts of it on Lebanese territory. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah, who had been largely silent during Operation Northern Shield, said on 26 January that Hezbollah had been able to enter Israel for years but was not interested in war for the moment. He continued, “Part of our plan in the next war is to enter Galilee, a part of our plan we are capable of, God willing. The important thing is that we have this capability and we have had it for years.” Nasrallah did not say whether the tunnels found by Israel were in fact made by Hezbollah.

             The UK released a statement, saying it was adding Hezbollah in its entirety to its list of terrorist organizations. The UK’s home secretary Sajid Javid said, “Hizballah is continuing in its attempts to destabilase the fragile situation in the Middle East—and we are no longer able to distinguish between their already banned military wing and the political party. Because of this, I have taken the decision to proscribe the group in its entirety.” Hezbollah’s military wing was designated a terrorist organization by the UK in 2001. It holds 2 of 30 cabinet positions in Lebanon and 12 seats in the Lebanese parliament.

                Unidentified sources told al-Akhbar newspaper that the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) had been instructed to begin 15 new patrols in southern Lebanon to monitor Hezbollah activity. Reportedly, the instructions for the new patrols came after pressure from the U.S. and Israel. In April, UNIFIL confirmed a 3d tunnel from Lebanon to Israel. Israel claimed it had destroyed 6 tunnels during Operation Northern Shield, which began in December 2018 and ended in January 2019 (see Israel 1 January – 31 March).

                The Lebanese president Michel Aoun said that the U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (see United States) was undermining Lebanon’s claim to areas annexed by Israel during the 1967 war.

                The U.S. intensified its efforts to mediate between Israel and Lebanon regarding a disputed maritime area, which Lebanon wants to explore for potential production of oil and natural gas. After senior U.S. officials shuttled between Israel and Lebanon to get direct talks going in May, the Lebanese reportedly agreed to direct talks if UNIFIL was included as a mediator between the 2 countries. By the end of the quarter, it was unclear if Israeli and Lebanese officials had begun the direct talks.

                The Lebanese prime minister Sa’ad Hariri and speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri criticized the economic part of the U.S. peace proposal unveiled before the “Peace to Prosperity” workshop in Bahrain (see United States). Speaker Berri said that Lebanon would not be lured into resettling Palestinian refugees in return for the billion-dollar investment in the country that the U.S. is proposing. Prime Minister Hariri said that the Lebanese “government with parliament are against this deal and our constitution bans naturalisation.”

Palestinian and Syrian Refugees Protest in Lebanon

               Refugees from Palestine and Syria protested the Lebanese government’s crackdown on businesses hiring non-Lebanese citizens without work permits. In mid-July, the Lebanese government started closing down businesses that employed refugee workers without work permits. Palestinian refugees in particular also called for an end to laws that force Palestinian refugees to obtain work permits citing the fact that many Palestinian refugees can trace their refugee status in the country back to the Nakba. According to the Lebanese ministry of labor, the crackdowns on businesses have been instituted to persuade the some 1.5 million Syrian refugees to return to Syria. In Lebanon, Palestinian refugees are banned from working in more than 70 professions. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas said he was in dialogue with the Lebanese government to aid the Palestinian refugees.


U.S. Hezbollah Sanctions

               On 7/9, the United States (U.S.) added 2 members of the Lebanese parliament from the Hezbollah party and 1 Hezbollah official responsible for coordinating between Hezbollah and Lebanese security agencies to its list of sanctioned individuals. The 3 top officials in Lebanon—President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saed Hariri, and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri—all criticized the U.S. administration’s decision. Speaker Berri called the sanctions “an assault on all of Lebanon.”


Israeli Attacks on Lebanon

               In the early morning of 8/25, 2 Israeli drones crashed into a media center belonging to Hezbollah in Beirut. Hezbollah said that both of the drones were booby-trapped, causing major damage. Prime Minister Hariri and President Aoun both sharply criticized Israel’s attack, with Aoun calling it a declaration of war. Israel later claimed that its drones had destroyed missile-assembling material in the Beirut attack. 1 day later on 8/26, Israel struck a base via drone belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command in eastern Lebanon near Qusaya; no injuries were reported in the strike. 2 days later on 8/28, 3 additional Israeli drones entered Lebanese air space; the Lebanese army said it opened fire on 2 of them before all 3 returned to Israel. Then, on 9/2, an Israeli drone entered Lebanese airspace, to which Hezbollah responded by firing missiles at Israeli forces near the Blue Line; Israel then shelled some 100 targets in Lebanon. 1 week later on 9/9, Hezbollah said it shot down 1 Israeli drone in Lebanese air space. During this period, Israel also made attacks in Iraq and Syria.

Quarterly Updates for (1 Jan 1970 — 1 Jan 1970)

Following mos. of interfactional tension and violence in ‘Ayn al-Hilweh r.c. (see JPS 45 [2]), the Lebanese army began constructing a new wall around the camp on 11/20. A military spokesman said (11/22) this was a “security measure” to stop “the infiltration of terrorists” into the camp, and a Fatah security official confirmed (11/22) that the various Palestinian factions had met with the Lebanese military and decided that this was “the best decision” for the camp’s protection.