ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 139

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France proposes Israel-Lebanon truce deal pushing Hezbollah 10 km from border

Plan, which envisions talks on delineating land border, would leave terror group deep inside UN-mandated buffer zone south of Litani River, but neuter anti-tank missile threat

Smoke billows over the southern Lebanese border village of El-Khiam during Israeli bombardment on February 7, 2024. (Rabie DAHER / AFP)
Smoke billows over the southern Lebanese border village of El-Khiam during Israeli bombardment on February 7, 2024. (Rabie DAHER / AFP)

France has delivered a written proposal to Beirut aimed at ending hostilities with Israel and settling the disputed Lebanon-Israel frontier, according to a document seen by Reuters that calls for Hezbollah and other groups to withdraw 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border.

The plan, which would allow Hezbollah terrorists to remain well within a UN-mandated buffer zone, aims to end fighting between the Iran-backed group and Israel at the border. The hostilities have run in parallel to the Gaza war and are fueling concern of a ruinous, all-out confrontation.

The three-step plan envisages a 10-day process of de-escalation ending with negotiations on the long-unresolved delineation of a land border between Lebanon and Israel.

One French diplomatic source said the proposal had been put to the governments of Israel, Lebanon and Hezbollah.

France has historical ties with Lebanon. It has 20,000 citizens in the country and some 800 troops as part of a UN peacekeeping force.

The document, the first written proposal brought to Beirut during weeks of Western mediation, was delivered to top Lebanese state officials including Prime Minister Najib Mikati by French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne last week, four senior Lebanese and three French officials said.

Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, welcomes French Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Sejourne at his residence in Beirut on February 6, 2024. (AFP)

It declares the aim of preventing a conflict “that risks spiraling out of control” and enforcing “a potential ceasefire, when the conditions are right” and ultimately envisions negotiations on the delineation of the contentious land border between Lebanon and Israel.

Hezbollah, which has attacked Israel in support of the Hamas terror group in Gaza, rejects formally negotiating a de-escalation until the war in Gaza ends, a position reiterated by a Hezbollah politician in response to questions for this story.

While some details of similar mediation efforts by US Middle East envoy Amos Hochstein have been circulating in recent weeks, the full details of the French written proposal delivered to Lebanon have not previously been reported.

Hochstein, who was heavily involved in shepherding talks that culminated in Israel and Lebanon demarcating a maritime border in 2022, has been engaged in shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Lebanon since last month in an effort to prevent an escalation of the conflict.

“We made proposals. We are in contact with the Americans and it’s important that we bring together all initiatives and build peace,” Sejourne told a news conference on Monday.

The plan proposes Lebanese armed groups and Israel cease military operations against each other, including Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon, which have come in retaliation for incessant rocket and anti-tank guided missile attacks on towns, villages and military posts in northern Israel.

This picture taken from the vicinity of Marjayoun in southern Lebanon on February 8, 2024 shows smoke billowing from in the northern Israeli border town of Metulla following a Hezbollah attack. (Photo by AFP)

Several non-state groups, including Palestinian terror groups, have mounted attacks on Israel from south Lebanon during the latest hostilities, though Hezbollah is the dominant power in the area with a fighting force widely seen to outgun the Lebanese army.

The Lebanese armed groups would dismantle all premises and facilities close to the frontier, and withdraw combat forces – including Hezbollah’s elite Radwan fighters and military capabilities such as antitank systems – at least 10 kilometers north of the frontier, the document proposes.

The proposal would leave Hezbollah fighters much closer to the border than the 30 kilometers (19 mile) withdrawal to Lebanon’s Litani River stipulated in a UN resolution that ended a war with Israel in 2006.

But it would put northern Israel out of range of many of Hezbollah’s anti-tank guided missiles.

The compromise seen as more palatable to Hezbollah than a retreat to the Litani, as Israel has demanded, one Western diplomat with knowledge of the two-page proposal said.

A picture took from the Israeli side of the border shows Lebanese security forces and Hezbollah supporters at the Israel-Lebanon border, October 7, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Up to 15,000 Lebanese army troops would be deployed in the border region of south Lebanon, a Hezbollah political stronghold where the group’s fighters have long melted into society at times of calm.

Asked about the proposal, senior Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters that the group would not discuss “any matter related to the situation in the south before the halt of the aggression on Gaza.”

“The enemy is not in the position to impose conditions,” added Fadlallah, declining to comment on details of the proposal or whether Hezbollah had received it.

One of the Lebanese officials said the document brings together ideas discussed in contacts with Western envoys and had been passed on to Hezbollah. French officials told the Lebanese it was not a final paper after Beirut raised objections to parts of it, the Lebanese official said.

An Israeli official said such a proposal had been received and was being discussed by the government.

An Israeli soldier looks on as a helicopter takes off during a military exercise in Upper Galilee near the Lebanon border on February 7, 2024. (Photo by Jalaa MAREY / AFP)

Reuters reported last month that Hezbollah had rebuffed ideas suggested by Hochstein, who has been at the heart of the efforts, but that it had also kept the door ajar to diplomacy.

Asked for comment on the proposal, a State Department spokesperson said the United States “continues to explore all diplomatic options with our Israeli and Lebanese counterparts to restore calm and avoid escalation.”

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Lebanese official said several elements prompted concern in Beirut, including the demand armed groups dismantle premises and facilities close to the border, which the official said was vaguely worded and could be used to demand moves against Hezbollah-affiliated civilian institutions.

Tens of thousands of people have fled homes on both sides of the border since the fighting began on Oct. 8.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in six civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers and reservists.

A man walks past a building which was damaged in overnight Israeli strikes on the southern Lebanese village of Houla near the border on February 11, 2024. (Hasan FNEICH / AFP)

Hezbollah has named 193 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, including three killed Monday in an Israeli strike on a Hezbollah site in the south Lebanon village of Tallouseh.

Another 29 operatives from other terror groups have been killed in Lebanon, along with a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists.

The strikes from both sides have mostly been contained to areas near the border and Israel and Hezbollah have said they want to avoid all-out war.

Blazes break out in Kiryat Shmona after Hamas fires rockets from Lebanon (Fire and Rescue Services)

Numerous Western envoys have visited Beirut to discuss ways to de-escalate the fighting, mostly meeting with Lebanese state officials rather than Hezbollah, which is designated a terrorist organization by the United States.

One of the Lebanese officials said a French technical delegation returned to Beirut two days after Sejourne’s visit to discuss details, following the Lebanese objections.

Another of the Lebanese officials said Beirut had not responded to the proposal, adding that it was neither signed nor dated and was therefore not deemed official enough to warrant a response.

10 days to talks

The proposal maps out three steps over 10 days, starting with an end to military operations.

Within three days, step two would see Lebanese armed groups withdrawing combat forces from the frontier and Lebanon would initiate the deployment of soldiers in the south. Israel would cease overflights into Lebanese territory.

As the third step, within 10 days, Lebanon and Israel would resume negotiations on delimiting the land border “in a gradual way” and with the support of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL.

They would also engage in negotiations on a roadmap to ensure the establishment of an area free of any non-state armed groups between the border and the Litani River.

A UNIFIL vehicle patrols near a billboard with a portrait of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, in the southern town of Adaisseh, on August 30, 2023. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

Hezbollah has previously signaled it could support the state negotiating a deal with Israel to settle the status of disputed areas at the border to Lebanon’s benefit. In 2022, it backed a deal to delineate a maritime border that ended a long-running dispute and let Beirut lease lucrative offshore natural gas plays.

One of the issues to address is financing for the Lebanese army, severely weakened by a severe financial crisis in Lebanon.

The proposal calls for an international effort to support the deployment of the Lebanese army with “financing, equipment, training”. It also called for “the socio-economic development of southern Lebanon.”

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