BEIRUT — Lebanon’s prime minister paid a visit to south Lebanon, a day after Hezbollah organized a tour for journalists along the Lebanon-Israel border, and slammed the Iran-backed terror group for its activities there.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri criticized the media tour organized by Hezbollah during which armed gunmen from the group appeared in a UN-created border buffer zone meant to be free of Hezbollah presence, calling it “unacceptable in our opinion.”
The Hezbollah tour, intended to show journalists defensive measures taken by Israel along the border in the past year, was also criticized by other opponents of the Iranian-backed group as a provocation and a violation of a 2006 UN Security Council resolution that created the buffer zone.
Hariri, on his visit Friday, met with United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the area and renewed Lebanon’s commitment to international resolutions.
“What happened yesterday is something that we, as a government, are not (involved) with and do not accept,” Hariri said. He struck a conciliatory tone, however, saying “there are political differences (with Hezbollah) that we put aside, and this is one of them.”
“I came here to emphasize that our role as a government is to preserve Resolution 1701,” Hariri said.
Thursday’s tour sought to paint Israel as afraid of a new conflict, while depicting Hezbollah as ready for war despite having committed thousands of its fighters to bolstering Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.
While taking queries from the journalists, a Hezbollah officer refused to answer questions about a possible next war with Israel or about the terror organization itself.
During the tour, Hezbollah detailed the Jewish state’s new defenses and claimed that Israel had switched to a “defensive” doctrine for the first time in its history. In a clip aired on LBC, one of its officers is seen showing familiarity with Israeli northern towns and with Israeli military units operating in the area and their chain of command.
The Israeli army has been changing the topography of the Israel-Lebanon border, carving and molding the landscape in order to make it more difficult for Hezbollah fighters to attack nearby border towns, the terror group said.
Hezbollah also showed off some of its weaponry, inviting photographers to take pictures of its armed gunmen.
Journalists were taken from the southern Lebanese town of Naqura, with Hezbollah fighters in full military regalia stationed along the route alongside the group’s yellow flag — despite an official ban on any armed paramilitary presence in southern Lebanon.
Faces smeared with black and green camouflage, they stood silently holding guns and RPG launchers.
On the demarcation line, officially patrolled by the Lebanese army and the UN peacekeeping force known as UNIFIL, there was little sign of tension. The scents of wild thyme and yellow gorse mingled in the air, the landscape peaceful beyond the noise produced by the sudden scrum of visitors.
While eager to discuss the measures they say Israel has been taking, Hezbollah officials refused to be drawn on their own preparations for war, beyond insisting on their ability to fight if one comes.
Some analysts believe Hezbollah would be hard-pressed to fight on two fronts, Syria and Israel, but others note the group’s combatants have also gained new experience during years of battle in the Syrian conflict.
On the less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) of border that the 300th Regional Brigade is responsible for, Israel has carried out “thousands of kilometers” of work, Israel’s chief engineering officer, Maj. Eliyahu Gabay, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.
The Hezbollah officer said the IDF removed the greenery on the slope of a mountain, creating an open zone 1,600 meters long and seven to 15 meters high.
“It was all once green here,” the officer said.
He also said Israel has made an eight- to 10-meter-high dirt embankment between the Israeli towns of Hanita and Hamra “meant to prevent passage.”
According to Gabay, the terrorist group is constantly monitoring the IDF’s efforts to shore up defenses. “It’s normal, it’s routine, it’s regular” for its operatives to come to the border and watch our progress, he said.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.