Two incidents in three days, in which Israel’s military was caught with its hand beyond its borders, raise questions of sovereignty and what it means to Israel.
Sovereignty is a funny thing. Some countries claim more of it than they really have, some don’t have full control over their sovereign territory or airspace, and others willingly cede some of their sovereignty for a number of reasons.
Two cases of Israel violating the sovereignty of its neighbors made headlines in the past few days. The first incident involved Israeli combat soldiers infiltrating Lebanon’s borders on Wednesday.
Israeli violations of Lebanon’s airspace, maritime and land borders are, of course, nothing new. Overflights sometimes reaching as far north as Beirut take place on a near-daily basis. This case only even made headlines because four Israeli soldiers were injured inside Lebanese territory.
Israel doesn’t even deny its incursions into Lebanon and the areas under its control. When Israel sometimes acknowledges the violations, it describes overflights as necessary and defensive. Following the most recent incident, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded simply, “We will continue to act responsibly in order to defend Israel’s borders.”
Nothing to see here; move along.
The violations of Lebanese sovereignty are a case of one country boldly and arrogantly acting with the knowledge that its superior power allows it to do so. Such acts of military aggression run the risk of escalating into a wider conflict, as occurred in 2006, but as Israel’s repeated airstrikes against targets in Syria show, decision makers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv believe the risk to be minimal. In short, they know they can get away with it.
Hezbollah, too, has a history of violating Israeli airspace. Nearly a decade ago the group attempted to send crude UAVs into Israel’s north and more recently, managed to fly a drone deep into the Negev.
As for Lebanon, decision-makers in Beirut have a simple calculation: start a war in response to Israeli aggression or make due with a complaint in the UN and keep on as if nothing happened. It has never opted for any option but the latter.
The second case, of an entirely different nature, took place along Israel’s southern border on Friday. The Israeli Air Force reportedly struck a rocket-launching site on the Egyptian side of the Gazan border in Rafah. The drone strike, first confirmed by unnamed Egyptian officials, most likely carried the approval, or at least acquiescence of Egypt, or its army.
Nearly all Egyptian military activity in the Sinai Peninsula is carried out with, and only with, Israel’s explicit approval. The Sinai was demilitarized following the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and in recent years, Israel has given the Egyptian military approval to deploy tanks and other armed forces into the Sinai in order to restore order and fight jihadist elements there.
Put together, the existing open lines of communication between Israeli and Egyptian military officials, the fact that the drone strike was first announced by Egypt and warnings Egypt gave Israel the day before about a planned rocket attack, all point toward the likelihood that Cairo either acquiesced to an Israeli request for permission to strike the rocket cell, that Egypt actually asked Israel to carry out the attack on its behalf or that it simply looked the other way. Such cooperation is reminiscent of U.S. drone policy in Yemen.
Sovereignty is a funny and hypocritical thing. While countries demand that others respect their own sovereignty, they readily violate others’. Sometimes it is considered an act of war, sometimes it is ignored because responding would be more trouble than it’s worth.
Of course the most convoluted cases of sovereignty are Israel’s control over the West Bank, Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights. In the West Bank, Israel does not claim sovereignty but is the effective sovereign, ruling the land and people militarily, with both legal and military tools. In Gaza, Israel relinquished physical control but maintains its rule over the Strip’s airspace, maritime zones and land borders.
In East Jerusalem, Israel unilaterally extended its sovereignty by annexing the land. It did not, however annex the people, the vast majority of whom hold revocable permanent residency and are stateless.
In the Golan Heights, Israel extended its sovereignty over Syrian territory, this time offering citizenship to its residents, but many refused, believing that the land will eventually return to Syrian control.
Sovereignty is a funny thing.
The use of “Jerusalem” has been modified so as not to imply recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, in accordance with the entire world community’s non-recognition. It’s a complex issue, which I’ll address in a later post.