On Tuesday, Lebanese Army Sergeant Abdel Karim Moqdad was killed in an Israeli artillery strike at a Lebanese Army site on al-Owaidah hills, marking the first Israeli killing of a Lebanese soldier since Oct. 8 when hostilities began on the southern front.
Arabic-speaking military spokesman Avichay Adraee said on Wednesday that the Israeli army was not targeting Lebanese soldiers, apologized and claimed to have opened an investigation into the “accident.”
Israel is often accused of claiming a mistake every time it carries out a controversial attack, as when a strike — deemed deliberate by Reporters Without Borders — killed Lebanese video journalist Issam Abdallah in October. In this context, many military experts and analysts perceive this attack as a strong message to Hezbollah, the Lebanese authorities and army.
‘Killing and destroying’
“The strike that caused the death of this young sergeant came from a tank, and simply cannot be a mistake,” said retired army general and former MP for Kesrouan Chamel Roukoz.
A security source confirmed to L’Orient-Le Jour that “it was a direct and clearly targeted strike.”
Based on this finding, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said it had asked the Lebanese delegation to the UN to lodge a complaint against Israel. This is not the first time that Israeli attacks have hit Lebanese army posts, which have already suffered material losses and several soldiers of which have been injured since Hezbollah decided to intervene alongside Hamas in the al-Aqsa Flood.
On Wednesday, the Maronite bishops, who met under Bkirki’s leadership, criticized Hezbollah for this move, calling for “decisions on war and peace to be exclusively made by the Lebanese state.”
But why, at a time when Israel is calling for the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which provides for a massive deployment of the army in the south, would it target a post of this same army?
“By striking in this way, Israel is putting pressure on Hezbollah by making it understand that if the fighting escalates in southern Lebanon, it will not be limited to targeting it,” said Roukoz.
“It is also telling the troops that they must stay out of the ongoing clashes,” he added.
Hezbollah concurred. “The Israeli attack is clearly a threat leveled against the Lebanese government, army and people,” says a source close to Hezbollah.
The attacks on the [Lebanese] army, journalists and civilians, reflect Israel’s desire to push Lebanon towards an escalation. “There has been a cycle of Israeli provocations since Oct. 8,” said political specialist Karim Bitar.
He recalled press reports that the radical wing of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet wants a wider offensive in Lebanon to push Hezbollah militia away from the border and allow displaced persons to return to their communities in northern Israel.
However, this plan does not have the green light from the US, which favors negotiations. “While the war in Gaza does not seem to be having the desired effects, the Israelis could still be setting a trap for Hezbollah and the Lebanese government,” added Bitar.
According to this analysis, Tel Aviv is trying to draw Hezbollah and even the army into a spiraling escalation, which would enable it to justify opening a new front in southern Lebanon.
Also on Wednesday, another civilian was killed and two others were injured in an Israeli drone strike targeting the village Mais al-Jabal.
Following the death of Sergeant Moqdad, who was buried on Wednesday in his home village Shmustar near Baalbeck, how will Hezbollah react?
“What is clear is that tension is mounting and that the situation is open to all possibilities,” said the source that is close to Hezbollah, underlining “trust and cooperation” with the army, particularly in the border area.
For his part, Bitar seems to dismiss the possibility of a strong retaliation by Hezbollah. “Neither Iran nor the popular base of the Shiite movement has any interest in being carried away in an all-out war,” he believes. “The same goes for the army, the last institution that continues to hold up in Lebanon.” That is true particularly since it would be exposed to destructive reprisals.
“Unless the Israelis decide to start a ground invasion, the Lebanese Army cannot withdraw from restraint. That would be an outright suicide,” said retired General Bassam Yassin, who was stationed in south Lebanon for a long time.
“Hezbollah has the advantage of being able to wage guerrilla warfare. However, the military establishment is a regular army, and the balance of power is not in its favor, particularly since the successive governments since the 1960s have not invested in its equipment or weaponry, especially in its air force, which is crucial when facing Israel,” he added.
Apart from equipment, the military institution lacks the political cover to retaliate to Israeli attacks. The Lebanese authorities do not want to alienate the international community, and insist on the importance of distinguishing itself from Hezbollah.
“Without a government green light, the armed forces cannot act,” said the security source.
What role can the army assume in the border area? “The army’s main objective in southern Lebanon is to keep the situation under control and avoid any destructive developments. The troops are trying, for instance, to keep Palestinian groups such as Hamas away from the border,” said Roukoz. This action is supported by Western capitals.
It was in this context that the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement regretting the death of the Lebanese soldier. “France is deeply concerned by continued clashes at the border between Lebanon and Israel,” it said in a press release. “It deplores the Israeli shelling that killed a member of the Lebanese Armed Forces and offers its heartfelt condolences to his loved ones,” It added.
The Ministry’s spokeswoman, Anne-Claire Legendre, went on saying, “France reiterates its support for the Lebanese Army, which upholds the country’s unity and stability. It reiterates its commitment to Lebanese sovereignty and to the full implementation of UN Security Resolution 1701 by all concerned parties.”
The international community is also putting pressure on Israel to restore calm at the border. This is particularly true of the US, the major donors to the Lebanese Army.
Is this why the Israelis issued an apology to the troops, in a statement deemed “rare” even by Israeli media?
This article was originally published by L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Joelle El Khoury.