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Hizballah’s Attack On The Lebanese Army: An Accident Or A Message?


By: Phillip Smyth

Phillip Smyth is the the CT Blog's Assistant Newslinks Editor and a contributor to the Aramaic Democratic Organization. He has visited Lebanon, interviewied anti-Hezbollah NGOs and Hezbollah supporters, and maintains regular contact with sources there. He wrote the following about the downing on Thursday of a Lebanese Army helicopter by Hizballah forces.

The hills of Iqlim al-Tuffah are known for their apple orchards, in addition to being an off-limits Hizballah base. The area had been targeted by the Israelis for surgical and reprisal attacks against Hizballah since Israel and the SLA patrolled the Security Zone. The peaceful noon time on Thursday was interrupted by anti-aircraft fire. A helicopter was forced to land in the village of Sojod. Only, this time, the helicopter was not Israeli, nor did it belong to the UNIFIL forces based in southern Lebanon, this was a Lebanese army UH-1 Iroquois (commonly known as the Huey). The helicopter attack also killed one, First Lieutenant Samer Hanna, in addition to other casualties. Nevertheless, the full story of this incident is marred with speculation, rumors and many unnerving facts.

Many in the media insinuated that the attack may have something to do with “Sunni Islamist militants from the north [read: Tripoli]”. The New York Times stated, “The Lebanese Army has come under attack several times this summer, including in a bombing this month that left nine soldiers and several civilians dead.” As with the NYT, the AFP, made sure the Sunni Islamists would be placed at the end of the article stating, "Nine Lebanese soldiers and five civilians were killed in a bombing at a bus stop in the northern port city of Tripoli earlier this month in an attack thought to have targeted the army. The army has also suffered other attacks since it fought a 15-week battle with militants of the Al-Qaeda inspired Fatah al-Islam in the Nahr el-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. In December the head of the army's military operations, General Francois el-Hajj, was killed in a massive bomb attack and just over a month later Major Wissam Eid, a top intelligence officer, was killed in similar circumstances.”

In fact, the last attack in the south by suspected Sunni Islamists was in June, 2007, killing 6 Spanish peacekeepers in a UNIFIL convoy. While Hizballah was the obvious cause of the latest attack, and even Hizballah militiamen said that they, “thought that there was an Israeli landing attempt (under way) and opened fire in the direction of the helicopter, hitting it.” The major press still insinuated that a group like Fatah al Islam could be behind the attack. When the attack was first reported, Hizballah initially denied it had anything to do with the attack, but this would later be disproved.

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The Israeli daily Ha‘aretz reported that, “ Hezbollah downed a Lebanese Army helicopter on Thursday in what Israeli officials believe was a case of mistaken identity: The Shi'ite militiamen apparently thought they were firing at an Israeli chopper.” Even with the assumption that Hizballah made a mistake, Ha’aretz further disproves this theory when they said, “The helicopter was apparently flying at low altitude.” Just a cursory look at the paint schemes of a Lebanese UH-1 (usually painted a dark green with a very visible red, green and white Lebanese air force roundel) versus Israeli models (normally painted an olive green with a golden V, and recognizable roundel featuring the Star of David or a desert, green and brown camouflage), shows that the Hizballah militiamen operating the anti-aircraft gun(s) were either extremely incompetent or had some idea that they were targeting a Lebanese helicopter.

Needless to say, Hizballah, especially in a strategic region 12 miles from Israel, doesn’t normally employ incompetents to man its newly installed anti-aircraft fixtures. This was quite obvious considering Hizballah’s quick reaction to campers (they were kidnapped and held) who stumbled onto Hizballah’s new anti-aircraft facilities on Mt. Sannine. Furthermore, any Hizballah fighter could logically assume that Israel wouldn’t launch an incursion into a Hizballah stronghold such as Iqlim al-Tuffah in a single Huey helicopter. The Arabic daily As Safir, “cited poor coordination between Hizbullah and the Lebanese army regarding the helicopter overflight and the tension among Hizbullah ranks as a result of Israeli threats and intensified Israeli overflights over the past few days as reasons for the confusion that led to the helicopter shooting.” Nevertheless, Naharnet reported that a “semi-official report” stated that, “the helicopter came under gunfire upon take off from a hilltop.

The Hizballah and allies responded with a mixture of whitewashing the incident, ignoring it, and even tried to shift blame onto the Israelis. According to the International Herald Tribune, “Sheik Abdul-Amir Kabalan, urged the army to investigate swiftly and suggested that a collaborator with Israel may have fired on the aircraft.” Kabalan is close with Harakat Amal, the other major Shia party in Lebanon, which in turn is allied to Hizballah. NOW Lebanon reported that according to “inside sources,” “Hezbollah fighters shot at the military helicopter because it crossed red lines that Hezbollah had warned the Defense Ministry and army command' not to cross” OTV, the Free Patriotic Movement’s mouthpiece (the FPM is Hizballah’s key Christian ally), did not even offer a story on their website regarding the incident. Instead OTV only featured the story as a small link reading, (Google Translation) “General Michel Aoun visited the Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon for the Roman Orthodox George Khader and discussed with him the latest developments in the death of First Lieutenant Samir Hanna result of the fall of the Lebanese Army helicopter. After exposure to a shooting in the south, the UN Security Council extended an additional year of peacekeeping forces in south Lebanon.”

Note: there is no mention of Hizballah, OTV’s politics page is also devoid of any mention abut the helicopter and the controversy surrounding it. Hizballah’s TV organ, Al Manar was little different. In their article they used the Lebanese army’s neutral language in describing the attack, “The Lebanese army said in a statement that one of its helicopters came under gunmen fire while undertaking a training mission over the Iqlim Al-Toffah region in south Lebanon.”

In Lebanon, rumors spread very quickly. However, with reports saying that the helicopter was attacked while it was still on ground and that the assailants, after killing 1st Lt. Samer Hanna, assaulted another officer,” this could have been a targeted attack Former general Elias Hanna told the AFP that, “the Shiite movement wanted to send a message to the army ahead of the nomination of an army chief and discussions on a national defence strategy.” Toni Nissi, Lebanese leader of the International Lebanese Committee for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 told me that, “no one is allowed to fly over a Hizballah base.” Adding, “[Hizballah is] not happy with the nomination of the chief of the army.”

On the macro level, the dead pilot of the helicopter, Samer Hanna, came from the village of Tannourine. This is the same village that March 14th legislator, and former candidate for the Lebanese presidency, Boutros Harb came from and represents. Harb was noted as saying Hizballah controlled a, “mini-state inside the state”, and also stating “Whenever we have a state and government ready to fight for the country’s independence, at that moment Hezbollah will not have a pretext to continue having their arms and we’ll invite them to be part of the institutions of the state.” A contact whose family is close to Hanna’s, told me that Hanna’s political background was, “with the March 14th Coalition.” If this was a targeted operation, they surely struck a cord with the March 14th Coalition regarding Hizballah’s arms, and at the very least with MP Harb.

Whether this was a legitimate accident, or a deliberate attack, Hizballah has deliberately or inadvertently made a clear message to the March 14th leadership.

1. Hizballah does not like who will become the new army commander.
2. Hizballah rules the south of Lebanon, and army encroachment will not be permitted.
3. Hizballah, not the Lebanese state, will dictate any future relationship with the army.


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