Analysis: Shoot-out in Lebanon is an ominous sign

The short but very sharp battle on the Lebanese border on Tuesday which took the lives of an Israeli battalion commander, three Lebanese soldiers and one reporter, may turn out to be an isolated incident. By evening, calm had returned to Israel's north, but it is a worrying indication of the state of affairs in the land ofthe cedars.

The direct fire at the Israeli command post, during a routine maintenance operation across the border fence but well within Israeli territory, was at the orders of a low-level officer, but it is still unclear whether he was acting on his own initiative.

The shooting, though, cannot be disconnected from the increasingly belligerent attitude of the Lebanese army towards the IDF patrols on the border in recent months. Israeli commanders in the region have reported a marked increase in Lebanese soldiers pointing their weapons at the patrols and more efforts to hit Israeli aircraft with ground-fire. Most of these complaints focus on Lebanon's Brigade Nine, whose soldiers opened fire this week.

The brigade has recently appointed a new commander, a Shia with close ties to Hizbollah, and there is concern as to his loyalties. But even at higher levels, there are ominous developments afoot in the Lebanese army, a direct result of Hizbollah's participation in the national coalition.

Four years ago, when the United Nations passed Resolution 1701 at the end of the Second Lebanese War, the Lebanese Army was supposed to be, along with UNIFIL, the main force that would ensure Hizbollah did not rebuild its military infrastructure in the south. The army did indeed deploy a major contingent in the region - three whole brigades with a fourth on the way - but over the last year, it has emerged as an ally of Hizbollah, not the rival it once was.

The Lebanese are now demanding their soldiers join every UNIFIL patrol with the clear implication that this will provide Hizbollah with advance warning of any potential inspections of its missile stockpiles.

Exactly four years to the end of the last Lebanese war, Israel faces not only Hizbollah with more arms than ever, but also potentially another enemy across the border.

    Last updated: 2:25pm, August 11 2010