Biden envoy due in Lebanon as US aims to reduce bubbling Israel-Hezbollah tensions

Amos Hochstein will meet with senior officials in Beirut and inspect UNIFIL operations ahead of vote on extending mandate of peacekeeping force

Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra, Lebanon's official government photographer, via AP)
Lebanese President Michel Aoun, right, meets with US Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein, at the presidential palace, in Beirut, Lebanon, September 9, 2022. (Dalati Nohra, Lebanon's official government photographer, via AP)

A top US envoy will arrive in Beirut on Wednesday for meetings with senior Lebanese officials aimed at de-escalating tensions on the country’s border with Israel that have risen in recent months.

US energy envoy Amos Hochstein will reportedly meet with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, House Speaker Nabih Berri and military chief Joseph Aoun. He will also conduct a rare visit by a US official to Lebanon’s southern border to examine the UN Interim Force In Lebanon’s presence there.

The UN Security Council is set to vote Thursday on renewing the peacekeeping force’s mandate. Lebanon and the Hezbollah terror group based in the country are pushing to restrict UNIFIL’s mandate and want the force to be barred from conducting patrols that aren’t coordinated with the Lebanese military. Israel and the US, on the other hand, oppose the demand and want UNIFIL’s mandate strengthened further.

The current mandate bars UNIFIL from carrying out patrols on private land. Accordingly, Lebanon has converted large swaths of territory near the border with Israel into private land. Israel is pushing the Security Council to strike this condition from UNIFIL’s mandate.

The US has decided to intensify its efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, fearing that the sides could be one wrong move away from a major conflict, Axios reported on Tuesday.

Hochstein is also slated to tour a natural gas drilling rig that recently arrived off of the Lebanese coast. Hochstein brokered an agreement between Israel and Lebanon on behalf of the US last year that for the first time drew an internationally recognized maritime boundary between the two countries.

View of a Hezbollah tent that was erected on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, as it seen from the Israeli side of the border with Lebanon, on August 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The deal allowed cash-strapped Lebanon to begin exploring for gas for the first time and helped de-escalate tensions between the countries in the Mediterranean Sea.

Tensions on the land border between the two countries has persisted though, thanks to an uptick in Hezbollah operations there.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant raised the issue during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York on Monday.

Gallant told Guterres that the likelihood of an outbreak of violence with the Iran-backed Hezbollah was mounting, calling on UNIFIL to work to reduce the recently raised tensions.

The minister demanded an “immediate UN intervention in deescalating tensions” by strengthening and increasing the freedom of movement of UNIFIL, Gallant’s office said.

Gallant showed the UN chief the deployment of dozens of Hezbollah posts along the border, including a tent erected within Israeli territory and increasing patrols and presence by terror group operatives in the area.

Illustrative: A United Nations peacekeeping force (UNIFIL) convoy patrols next to Naqoura, in Lebanon near its border with Israel, October 13, 2020. (Mahmoud Zayyat/AFP)

The recent Hezbollah actions are a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended a month-long war in 2006 and bars armed groups aside from the official Lebanese military and UNIFIL from operating south of Lebanon’s Litani River.

Gallant told Guterres that “Israel will not tolerate increasing threats to the security of its citizens, and will act as required in their defense,” his office said.

Gallant also discussed the issue with senior US officials Barbara Leaf and Brett McGurk, who commuted from Washington to New York in order to meet him since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has barred most of his ministers from meeting with US counterparts in DC until he does so first.

The meetings came amid a recent increase in Hezbollah activity along the border, including the erection of two tents on the Israeli side of the UN-recognized Blue Line in the Mount Dov area. The Iran-backed group later took down one of the tents, while threatening to attack if Israel moves to dismantle the other one.

Other recent incidents on the Lebanese border have included camouflaged Hezbollah members walking along the border in violation of a UN resolution, and Hezbollah activists crossing the Blue Line (though not the Israeli border fence) on numerous occasions, including attempts to damage the border fence and army surveillance equipment.

Hezbollah activists climb an Israeli surveillance tower on the border with Lebanon, July 12, 2023. (Social media: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

Israel and Lebanon do not have a formal border due to territorial disputes; however, they largely abide by the Blue Line. The line is marked with blue barrels along the border and in some areas is several meters from the Israeli fence, which is built entirely within Israeli territory.

In April, dozens of rockets were fired from Lebanon at Israel, injuring three people and damaging buildings. Though Israel blamed the attack on the Palestinian terror group Hamas, it was seen as having been carried out with the tacit approval of Hezbollah, which maintains tight control of southern Lebanon.

Separately, in March, the IDF accused Hezbollah of sending a terrorist to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon and plant a bomb at a junction in northern Israel. The blast seriously wounded an Israeli man.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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