The Middle East Takes on the Appearance of Powder Keg

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Antennae in the Mideast suddenly alerted this week when Secretary Blinken said this that Israel “has effectively lost sovereignty” in the northernmost part of the country because of Hezbollah’s terrorist attacks emanating from southern Lebanon. Relevant parties came to attention in Israel and Lebanon but also nearby Cyprus, the island nation that last month Hezbollah’s terror chief, Hassan Nasrallah, for the first time threatened directly. 

Approximately 60,000 Israelis have fled the area of northern Israel that straddles the troubled border area with Lebanon. That is the situation to which Mr. Blinken was referring when he evoked “lost sovereignty in the northern quadrant” of the country because “people don’t feel safe to go to their homes.”

It is a compact region, and the Hezbollah-initiated hostilities have resulted in Lebanese people, too, being displaced from their villages north of the Israeli border. Right now that situation is manageable, but if Hezbollah escalates things and makes Beirut a legitimate target for an Israeli response, that is when the present talk of a looming Third Lebanon War could morph into reality. 

It’s one that Lebanon itself would like to avoid. The Jerusalem Post first reported that the Lebanese foreign minister, Abdullah Bou Habib, dispatched a third–party communique to his Israeli counterpart, Israel Katz, saying that “We are interested in peace, we do not want war.”

There are a few problems with that statement. First, Israel and Lebanon have technically been in a state of war for decades. Secondly, with Iran-backed Hezbollah and its vast arsenal of rockets and other weaponry entrenched in the country, Lebanon could be considered a failed state — although a few people at Beirut may publicly say otherwise — in which Tehran ultimately calls the shots. 

Third, experience shows that when Israel’s regional enemies, from Hamas in the south to Hezbollah in the north, say that they are “interested” in peace, taking such facile statements at face value would not, to borrow a phrase from President H. W. Bush, be prudent.

To get a better read of the tea leaves, so to speak, it is worth tuning into some of the radio static coming from Cyprus. On Tuesday the country’s foreign minister, Constantinos Kombos, said that if war in the Middle East spreads to Lebanon, there will be “disastrous consequences” and that the situation is “worsening.”

More telling is that he said that in this context “the Republic of Cyprus is preparing for such an eventuality” and for the evacuation of third country nationals from Lebanon and that the number of those who would potentially need to be evacuated “could exceed 100,000.”

The Cyprus Mail reported that any such evacuations would be made under an action plan that was last activated in October to facilitate the arrival and onward repatriation of third country nationals from Israel.

Separately, there have been some reports in the British press that indicate increased preparations for possible evacuations have been underway for at least several weeks on the two British sovereign bases on the island.

The exact number of British troops on the island is not clear, nor is it clear if the numbers have been increasing. The British High Commission in Cyprus did not immediately respond to the Sun’s request for comment.

When Hezbollah threatened Cyprus last month, it was activity at those British bases that really rankled the terrorist group. Never mind the activity is generally routine and defensive in nature. For example, Britain has availed itself of its Akrotiri base to stage counterstrikes against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. 

Mr. Kombos also said that it “has not come to the government’s attention” that anything besides such activities have been made from the British bases. He reiterated that “Cyprus has nothing to do with assisting Israel’s military operations and it will not do so.” That said, the entire Middle East is taking on the appearance of powder keg.