Israel, Lebanon move to ease tensions after border skirmish

Updated 22 December 2013

Israel, Lebanon move to ease tensions after border skirmish

JERUSALEM: Israel and Lebanon on Monday rushed to ease tensions following a deadly border skirmish that left one Israeli soldier dead, with the enemy countries holding a face-to-face meeting with UN peacekeepers and pledging their commitment to a seven-year-old cease-fire.
The UN peacekeeping force along the volatile border, UNIFIL, said it called the meeting to “establish the facts and circumstances” behind the flare-up in violence and to restore a cease-fire that has been in place since a 2006 war. It said both sides pledged to preserve “calm and stability.”
In Sunday’s incident, a Lebanese sniper opened fire at an Israeli vehicle traveling near the border area of Rosh Hanikra, killing a soldier inside. Several hours later, the Israeli military said it shot two Lebanese soldiers after spotting “suspicious movement” in the same area. It was the heaviest fighting between the enemy countries in more than three years and drew condemnations and threats of retaliation from Israel.
Late Monday, the Lebanese army distanced itself from the incident, saying the shooting was the result of an “individual act” by a soldier.
It said a military committee was investigating the incident and was coordinating with the UN peacekeeping mission. With the shooter in custody, there was no word on a motive for the attack and no mention of the two soldiers allegedly shot by Israel. The Lebanese army stressed its full commitment to UN resolutions, including maintaining the 2006 cease-fire.
The tame language, and near apology for the incident, was rare for the Lebanese military, which is usually quick to point out Israeli border transgressions. It suggested that Lebanon was keen to avoid a conflagration on its border at a time of severe tensions resulting from the civil war in neighboring Syria.
Likewise, Israeli officials tried to lower the tensions. “The idea is to bring the situation back to normal and not aggravate the situation,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
The border has remained mostly quiet since the monthlong war in the summer of 2006, though there have been sporadic outbursts of violence. In the most serious incident, Lebanese forces killed a high-ranking Israeli officer in 2010, claiming the Israeli army had crossed the border while uprooting a tree. Israel responded with artillery fire that killed three Lebanese. Given the years of enmity between the two countries, even the smallest incident raises the risk of sparking a wider conflagration.
The UN Security Council on Monday issued a statement condemning the killing of the Israeli soldier, but noting that “UNIFIL confirmed the Lebanese government’s preliminary findings which indicate that the shooting was an individual action by a soldier.”
Late Monday, UNIFIL said it had convened a meeting of senior Israeli and Lebanese officers at the Naqoura border crossing, near the site of the shooting. UNIFIL’s commander, Maj. Gen. Paolo Serra, and the UN special coordinator for Lebanon, Derek Plumbly, also attended.
In a statement, Serra said preliminary findings indicated the Lebanese sniper had acted alone, in violation of operational rules and procedures. He said the sides discussed “concrete steps” to strengthen security arrangements, and emphasized their interest in preserving “calm and stability.”
“I was encouraged by the discussion at the tripartite meeting and by the way the parties approached the issues at hand,” Serro said. “They affirmed their full commitment to the cessation of hostilities.”
Lebanon and Israel have been officially at war since Israel’s creation in 1948. Each country bans its citizens from visiting the other, and there are no direct trade ties or diplomatic relations.
Their armies do not communicate directly, but in cases of increased tension exchange messages through the UN Face-to-face meetings under UN auspices like Monday’s sporadically take place, Israeli officials said.
The 2006 war broke out after Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel and captured two Israeli soldiers. The ensuing monthlong conflict killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis.
Hezbollah has an arsenal of tens of thousands of missiles and rockets aimed at Israel, and Israeli officials say it is only a matter of time for renewed fighting against the Shiite militia. But it was not involved in Sunday’s shooting and officials believe it is not interested in fighting at the current time because it is preoccupied with the war in Syria, where it is aiding the forces of President Bashar Assad.
Israel and Lebanon have fought several wars before. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the stated intention of driving Palestinian guerrillas out of the south. The Israeli military battled halfway through the country into Beirut and occupied south Lebanon until 2000.
The Lebanese are banned from calling or traveling to Israel or having contacts with Israelis. Such an offense is punishable by anything from a few weeks to life in prison with hard labor, depending on the kind and level of contact. All Israeli products are banned in the country, including Israeli films.
Israel restrictions are slightly less stringent, with phone calls to Lebanon and Lebanese film screenings permitted, though it is a punishable offense for an Israeli to visit Lebanon.
The two nation’s carriers do not fly over each other’s airspace. Travelers coming from Israel to Lebanon usually go through Jordan or Egypt. Those with Israeli stamps in their passports are deported, which forces travelers to carry a second passport.
Those who have visited in Lebanon and arrive in Israel are heavily questioned at the border or airport.
Associated Press writers Ryan Lucas and Zeina Karam in Beirut, and Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Arabs reject use of religion to gain power, poll suggests

Updated 18 min 51 sec ago

Arabs reject use of religion to gain power, poll suggests

  • Use of religion for political gain is rejected by 58 percent of respondents in a YouGov poll
  • Experts believe there is now more awareness of the tactics of religion-based political parties

DUBAI: Across the Arab world, an increasing number of citizens disagree with the “use of religion for political gain,” according to a recent YouGov survey.

As part of its partnership with the Arab Strategy Forum, Arab News commissioned a survey of the views and concerns of Arabs today and their projections for the future of the region.

A total of 3,079 Arabic speakers were surveyed, aged 18 and above and living across 18 countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Results revealed that 43 percent strongly disagree with the “use of religion for political gain,” while 15 percent “somewhat disagree.” By contrast, 7 percent strongly agree and 8 percent “somewhat agree.”

Another 14 percent “neither agree nor disagree” with the “use of religion for political gain.”

The combined average, however, unambiguously opposes the idea — at 58 percent. “The cases of Lebanon and Iraq shows a streak of anti-sectarianism rather than that of anti-religion per se,” said Dr. Albadr Al-Shateri, politics professor at the National Defense College in Abu Dhabi.

“Religious beliefs are deep-seated in these societies, so the advent of Western-style secularism in the region is doubtful. Even the most secular country in the Middle East, Turkey, turned out to have religious inclinations when it voted in an Islamist party” more than a decade ago. 

As long as people have little trust in political institutions, they will revert to their primary social institutions, notably religion, family and tribe, Al-Shateri told Arab News.

Dr. Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a former chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, said that the YouGov findings suggest that the days of using religion for political gain are over.

“We are seeing more and more awareness that religion-based political parties are not so genuine in their religious preaching,” he told Arab News.

“People are becoming aware that those who preach freedom, equality, democracy and women’s empowerment using religious discourse are no longer believable.”

Significant numbers disagreed with the statement in Iraq and Kuwait (74 percent), as well as in Lebanon (73 percent), Libya (75 percent), Sudan (79 percent), and Syria and Yemen (71 percent). 

“Ultimately, it’s a question of credibility of politicians,” said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at Chatham House, adding that “the credibility of political establishments is on the decrease globally because they are failing to deliver.”

He said that there is a general sense globally that political establishments are corrupt and not credible, which he partly pins on shifts in generational issues.

“Your grandparents’ concerns were probably more nationalistic,” he told Arab News.

“The generation of your parents were more about religion and, frankly, the new generation is more concerned about gender issues than anything else.

“Nationalism is totally irrelevant to them and religion far less.”

According to Shehadi, exploitation of religion no longer stirs up the young generation as they have different concerns. “They are on a different planet from politicians,” he said.

“Politicians are addressing issues that are very different from what the new generation is concerned with.”

With unrest continuing in several Arab countries, including Iraq and Lebanon, Abdulla sees it as a second round of the so-called Arab Spring, this time gripping Algeria, Sudan, Lebanon and Iraq.

“What is clear is that this second round is much more peaceful, focused and has already delivered a great deal,” he said.

“In Sudan, we have seen a very peaceful transition that was done to the satisfaction of the Sudanese people, and transition to democracy is going smoothly.

“In Algeria, it’s settling down and an election is coming up with some opposing it. But none of these two cases have witnessed the violence that engulfed Libya and Syria.”

That said, the future will depend on how governments and societies respond to the demands of the youth, according to Al-Shateri.

“The region faces many problems. However, the underlying cause is the lack of good governance. The concept of good governance has its provenance in Arab and Islamic traditions; it is not the equivalent of Westminster-style government necessarily.

“It is based on accountability, justice, equality, rule of law, ombudsmanship and the right to petition the government.”

Al-Shateri said Lebanon, Algeria, Iran and Iraq are examples of countries that have failed to provide these conditions, adding that the same was the case in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Syria when the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2011.

If regional countries achieve good governance, Al-Shateri expects many improvements in society, the economy and governance. “Short of that, the region will languish in backwardness, underdevelopment and conflict,” he said.