(Click to enlarge. Go to the link for even more detail. Map: Perry-Castaneda)
Today, what appears to have been a suicide car bombing killed 3 Spanish and 3 Colombian UNIFIL soldiers traveling in an armored troop carrier, somewhere between the towns of Marj 'Ayoun and Khiyam (circled in blue on the modified map above). The area of the attack is a few kilometers north of the Israeli town of Metulla, and just west of the Hazbani River. Two other Spanish peacekeepers were injured.
In the wake of the katyusha attack that hit Qiryat Shmonah on June 17, Spanish UNIFIL officers in particular assured the Israelis that they would do their utmost to prevent further attacks. Around the same time, rumors circulated in the press to the effect that the Italians had reached some kind of deal with Syria that would protect their UNIFIL soldiers from being hurt in attacks. I remember wondering whether the Spaniards might not regret their energetic efforts to carry out the mandate of the UN force in Lebanon. I do not think that it is an accident that Spanish troops were targeted in today's bombing, which has so far claimed the lives of 5 soldiers.
To borrow a phrase from Jeha, Syria still has enough "plausible deniability" to make the useful idiots as well as the malicious cast doubt on that government's involvement. Others, however, will probably agree that Syria has decided to play its third card. After the failure of the Fath al-Islam uprising attempt in northern Lebanon, Syria has decided to cause trouble in the south - most likely through Palestinian proxies rather than Hizbullah, which went as far as to condemn the attack (Ha'aretz) - perhaps an indication of the declining approval for explicitly pro-Syrian actions inside Lebanon. The country's rallying behind the Lebanese army throughout the ongoing campaign at Nahr el-Bared seems to have constrained the flexibility of Hizbullah as well as Aoun's FPM.
I thought it was interesting also to see the response to this latest bombing. Israel may yet be provoked into a response against Hizbullah or Syrian-backed Palestinian groups in the south, but right now, it is hoping to use these provocations to bolster the UNIFIL mandate.
Southern Lebanon has posed a security challenge to Israel since the country's independence; indeed, attacks on Jewish settlements in the Galilee go back three decades earlier still ("Tel Hai," English, Hebrew). Over the past 60 years, Israel's strategic aims in the northern Galilee and southern Lebanon have been mostly uniform - but one can isolate two distinct strands. Early Zionist leaders and some Israeli policy-makers saw control of Lebanon's south as necessary (or at least desirable) in order to assure access to water (1). However, the far more important determining factor since the 1960s has been security (2). To counter the threats posed by irregulars operating in southern Lebanon, Israel has resorted to a variety of defensive and offensive measures. UNIFIL, too, has played a small role in this strategy before. Given last summer's failure in Lebanon, Israel now seems more willing than ever before to give UNIFIL a bigger share in countering the threats (to Israel as well as Lebanese security) emanating from Lebanon's south.