Twenty-four hours after a Lebanese Army soldier shot dead IDF Master Sgt. Shlomi Cohen in a cross-border attack near Rosh Hanikra, there were still no indications that the gunman was acting on behalf of any organization or entity. Put another way: Despite the inclination to assume that Hezbollah was behind the attack, it may not have been. Not this time.
The initial findings of the IDF investigation into the attack suggest that the gunman decided on his own to fire on Israeli troops. He was patrolling along the border with five or six colleagues, and ran to the fence and opened fire at the vehicle in which Cohen was traveling.
The Lebanese Army, and Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati, sought to clarify Monday that the shooting was unacceptable. From first thing Monday morning, Lebanese officials were meeting with their Israeli counterparts, and with UNIFIL, in an effort to get to the bottom of what had happened.
Mikati met with the Lebanese Army top brass and told Derek Plumbly, the UN’s special representative in Lebanon, that this was an attack carried out by lone assailant, acting on his own. Mikati also reportedly expressed the hope that calm would return to the area.
Israel, for its part, did not point the finger of blame at Hezbollah but, rather, conveyed harsh messages to the Beirut government and to the Lebanese Army that it held them responsible.
For all the efforts on both sides of the border, however, it is not clear how long relative calm can prevail. Hard though it may be to believe, Hezbollah is not the most extreme force operating in the area; increasingly, radical Sunni groups are trying to get to the border fence. Earlier on Sunday, armed gunmen, apparently Sunni extremists, attacked a Lebanese Army position near Tyre and — as at the Golan Heights border — these extremists will likely seek to attack Israeli targets as well.
At the same time, the Lebanese Army is going through a process of radicalization and moving closer to Hezbollah. Hezbollah is deeply involved in making appointments to senior Lebanese Army positions, and has veto power over appointments of commanders in the various sectors where the army is deployed. It is thus gradually impacting the nature and orientation of the Lebanese Army.
In theory, the Lebanese Army and its commanders have free access to the Lebanese side of the border, and Hezbollah does not. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah forces are not allowed south of the Litani River. Naturally, Hezbollah is flouting that resolution, and has established rocket launch sites across southern Lebanon, and presumably makes effective use, too, of the predominantly Shiite Lebanese Army troops.
For the time being, Hezbollah is not interested in escalating hostilities on the Lebanon border — not so long as it is deeply involved in fighting alongside the Assad regime in Syria. But there can be little doubt that it is preparing for the next round of hostilities against Israel from Lebanon, and is gathering intelligence on Israeli army activity courtesy of soldiers in the Lebanese Army.
Thus while Sunday’s fatal attack may have been the work of a single soldier, and may not have been orchestrated, it most certainly did not happen in isolation.