Is Lebanon on the Brink of Violence?

Sheik Hassan Nasrallah addressed supporters in a Beirut suburb by video on Tuesday. Bilal Hussein / AP

Is Hizbullah’s radicalism seeping into the Lebanese Army? A deadly clash along the highly tense border between Lebanon and Israel this week left three Lebanese soldiers, a Lebanese journalist, and a senior Israeli officer dead. Both sides blame the other for starting the melee. What’s not in dispute is the cause: Israeli soldiers were moving to cut down part of a tree on the border, reportedly because it was blocking a security camera. The Lebanese troops fired machine guns and RPGs; the Israeli Army retaliated with artillery fire and even dispatched a helicopter to attack a nearby Lebanese base.

But was this really a skirmish about border foliage? For months, Israeli officials have accused Hizbullah of stockpiling weapons and ramping up tension on the border. Now it seems the Lebanese Army is also getting in on the act. “There is a sympathy [with Hizbullah],” says a Lebanese security official who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. “The people in the south have relations with the Army units. They know each other.” In fact, the majority of the Lebanese Army troops in the south are Shiites, which may make them more susceptible to pressure from Hizbullah. For his part, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah praised the role of the Army in a speech Tuesday, and warned that his fighters wouldn’t sit out the next round. And that could kick off a conflict that would go far beyond a dispute about trees at the border.

Critics have accused Nasrallah of involvement in the border attack (a charge he also denied in Tuesday’s speech), partly as a means of deflecting unwelcome scrutiny from the United Nations tribunal investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister (and moderate Sunni) Rafik Hariri. Leaks from the tribunal investigation have indicated that members of Hizbullah may have been involved and could be indicted. Nasrallah, in turn, has accused Israel of involvement in the assassination and rejected any role played by Hizbullah.

If the tribunal does blame Hizbullah for the assassination of Hariri, it could reignite violence between Lebanon’s Shiite and Sunni communities. Street battles between the two sides in May 2008 left more than two dozen people dead. The tensions are running so high that president Bashar al-Assad of Syria and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia paid an unprecedented visit to Beirut last Friday in an effort to calm things down. But their intervention may not be enough. And if the internal tensions boil over at the same time the border conflict with Israel heats up, Lebanon could be facing a crisis worse than the bad old days of the civil war.