BEIRUT — Lebanon’s president said his country will confront any Israeli aggression, the latest volley in a war of words over Israeli accusations of secret Hezbollah rocket sites near the Beirut airport.
In a tweet Tuesday, Michel Aoun said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allegations — made during an address to the UN General Assembly last week — were “baseless.”
“Netanyahu’s claims about military bases in the vicinity of the airport are unfounded and conceal a new Israeli threat to Lebanese sovereignty,” he tweeted.
“Lebanon will confront any Israeli aggression against its sovereignty,” he added.
In a speech at the UN General Assembly last week, Netanyahu had displayed an aerial shot of the area with the three alleged rocket sites.
“Israel knows, Israel also knows what you’re doing. Israel knows where you’re doing it. And Israel will not let you get away with it,” he said.
Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 rockets and missiles, though the vast majority are thought to lack precision technology.
Israel has vowed to keep the group from gaining more advannced weapons, carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria to stop suspected missile transfers to the group and other Iran-backed groups.
The Israeli army said the missile facilities on Netanyahu’s map were “another example of Iranian entrenchment in the region and the negative influence of Iran.”
Israel regularly accuses Lebanon of shielding the Hezbollah terror group and allowing it to stay armed, despite a 2006 UN resolution demanding it disarm.
Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy group, is a political force in Lebanon and is part of the ruling government.
Lebanon has denied that the sites contain missile silos and accused Israel of using the claim as a pretext for war.
On Monday, Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said his government would not allow rocket facilities near the airport and that Hezbollah is “wiser” than to place them there. He said Netanyahu’s claims were based on “inaccurate” estimates without any “compelling evidence.”
“Lebanon demands that Israel ceases its madness,” he said.
Lebanese officials also took ambassadors and reporters on a tour of some of the alleged sites on Monday, seeking to dispel the accusations.
Netanyahu derided the tour as “propaganda” and pointed to the three-day gap between his accusation and the Lebanese response.
The IDF Spokesman released a video saying three days was plenty of time to clear out a missile factory and invite foreign diplomats to tour the area.
“In three days you can clear out a precision missile factory, invite foreign ambassadors, and hope that the world will fall for it.”
It urged the international community not to be duped by what it said were “Hezbollah’s lies.”
#Hezbollah has a long history of covering up inconvenient truths and then parading foreign officials around. Maybe this time ask why missile workshop located so close to int’l #airport in heart of #Beirut?#maybethetruththistime pic.twitter.com/SFpqmw7ztq
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) October 1, 2018
Reporters who went on the tour said an alleged seaside missile site — marked as “Site 1” on a map brandished by Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly last week — was not visited, though Lebanese officials insisted it was missile-free.
Bassil said Monday’s tour, which included the ambassadors and several reporters, was not “a fact-finding mission,” but part of a “counter-diplomatic campaign” to rebut the allegations, which he said could serve as a pretext for an Israeli attack. Israel and Hezbollah fought a devastating monthlong war in 2006 in which Israel bombed the runways of Beirut’s airport.
Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah recently boasted that his group now possesses “highly accurate” missiles despite Israeli attempts to prevent it from acquiring such weapons. The comments prompted an angry response from Netanyahu, who said Hezbollah will “receive a lethal blow it can’t imagine” if it confronts Israel.
Bassil acknowledged Hezbollah’s claims, but said “this doesn’t mean that those missiles are present in the vicinity of Beirut airport.” He denied that the tour had been coordinated with Hezbollah in any way.
The first stop on the tour was a golf course near the Rafic Hariri International Airport, though it was not included in the Israeli allegations.
Then the group went to the nearby Ahed soccer club, where they toured the underground locker rooms and gym beneath the stadium and spoke to club officials. Netanyahu had said there was a missile site beneath the stadium.
“We come here for soccer and for fun. We also have our kids here. That is all we have here,” said Mohammed Zriak, a player on the team, whose fan base largely consists of Hezbollah supporters.
The last stop was at a warehouse in Ouzai, a Hezbollah-dominated neighborhood near the airport, which appeared to have been abandoned and was littered with plastic bags and napkins.
It was not clear if the warehouse was one of the sites mentioned by Netanyahu.
In May, Netanyahu said Israel was “operating against the transfer of deadly weapons from Syria to Lebanon or their manufacture in Lebanon.”
In recent years, Israel has acknowledged conducting hundreds of airstrikes in Syria, which it says were aimed at both preventing Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria and blocking the transfer of advanced munitions to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The Israeli Air Force has largely abstained from conducting raids inside Lebanon itself, though it has indicated that it was prepared to do so.
Earlier this year, IAF chief Amiram Norkin showed visiting generals a picture of an Israeli F-35 stealth fighter flying next to Beirut’s airport, in what was seen as a direct message to Hezbollah.