Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Israel's mysterious wall with Lebanon

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon]

For the first time in its 64-year history, Israel will build a wall along its northern border with Lebanon, according to recent press releases from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL). After a series of tripartite meetings between UNIFIL, the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Israel Defense Forces, it was announced that a wall will be constructed “to replace the existing Israeli technical fence along the Blue Line near the town of Kfar Kila.” When contacted by NOW Lebanon, UNIFIL spokesman Neeraj Singh declined to give precise details about the wall, but media reports suggest it will be approximately one kilometer in length, five meters high, and equipped with surveillance technology.

NOW Lebanon travelled to Kfar Kila and found no evidence that construction has yet begun. The adjacent Israeli village of Metula, surrounded by Lebanese territory on three sides, continues to be demarcated by the same metal fence that spans the length of the Blue Line, and there was no building equipment to be seen at any point in the vicinity. Moreover, UNIFIL troops stationed at the fence told NOW that they were unaware of any construction activity to date.

Indeed, the larger question appears to be why Israel should build such a wall in the first place. The official reason stated by UNIFIL both in press releases and in conversation with NOW is to “enhance security” and “minimize the scope for sporadic tensions or any misunderstandings that could lead to escalation of the situation” in “this sensitive area.” Former UNIFIL spokesman Timur Goksel agreed, telling NOW that, “This is the weakest point across the fence. It’s very easy to breach this area because it’s in a gully, and therefore not easily observable from Israeli positions.” David Schenker, an expert on Arab-Israeli politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred. “This is obviously a pretty sensitive area [for Israel], being so close to Metula. They’re concerned about infiltration. Also, a wall can prevent direct line-of-sight firing of things like RPGs and mortars.”

On a similar note, in the nearby town of Marjayoun, a journalist, who preferred not be named, introduced NOW to some Hezbollah members. “The Israelis are scared,” said one. “They know that if they provoke us again, we will wipe Israel off the map.” Rhetorical bravado though that doubtless was, it may nevertheless be true that the IDF is seeking to avoid deploying troops wherever possible. As Goksel put it, “A wall can cover the area without the need for posting soldiers. From Israel’s point of view it makes sense.”

However, the area has not in fact been a hazardous or “sensitive” one historically. “In my experience [of 24 years], there were never any attacks there because it’s adjacent to a Lebanese village, so any attack there will make life for the Lebanese very difficult,” Goksel said. “I don’t think anybody has ever thought of doing anything there. Moreover, even if you cross [into Israel] there, you’re not going to come across an Israeli position for a long time, so it doesn’t make sense for anyone to attack from there. What are you going to attack? There’s no target.” Similarly, at the fence in Kfar Kila, NOW spoke to UNIFIL troops and a number of local residents, none of whom said they had ever had security problems in the past.

If not security, then what else may be on Israel’s mind? The journalist Harriet Sherwood of the London Guardian wrote last month that Metula locals “speak of a flourishing drug-smuggling trade along this stretch of the border.” Kfar Kila residents denied this, although it isn’t clear in any case how a wall of merely one kilometer would prevent such a trade if it did exist.

Alternatively, the wall may be part of a wider, more general Israeli initiative to bolster its borders. Much has already been written about its 760 kilometer-long wall in the West Bank (which extends beyond its legally-recognized borders). Much more recently, however, Israel has also commenced construction of a 240 kilometer-long barrier on its Egyptian border. Schenker suggests this trend reflects heightened anxieties in Israel about the broader political transformations in the region. “Israel is building a series of walls, the most prominent one along the border with Egypt, because the Sinai has now basically become ungoverned.”

Finally, some are skeptical that the wall will be built at all. “I know the Israeli mentality very well,” said the journalist in Marjayoun, who lived for many years under Israeli occupation. “If they want to do something, they do it. They don’t tell you about it in advance.”

Whether or not he turns out to be correct, Israel’s objective in constructing the wall will remain a mystery for the time being.

Luna Safwan contributed reporting for this article.

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