Gallant: Residents of northern border towns won’t return before Hezbollah pushed away

Meeting mayors and council chiefs, defense minister says diplomatic end to Lebanon tensions possible, but if not, Israel will take action

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with mayors and local council heads of northern border towns in Nahariya on December 6, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with mayors and local council heads of northern border towns in Nahariya on December 6, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Meeting local leaders of northern border towns on Wednesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Israel plans to force the Hezbollah terror group to move away from the border, and does not expect residents to return to their homes before it does so.

According to multiple Hebrew media reports, Gallant told the mayors that the plan was to ensure Hezbollah forces are not present south of the Litani River, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended 2006’s Second Lebanon War.

Gallant said a diplomatic solution to cross-border tensions with Lebanon was possible, but if it could not be achieved, Israel would deal a heavy blow to Hezbollah in the country’s south.

Gallant met Wednesday in Nahariya with mayors and the heads of councils of the communities in the north that have been forced to flee, due to the cross-border fire since the start of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, as Hezbollah has launched regular attacks on civilian communities and military forces.

Resolution 1701 barred Hezbollah from maintaining a military presence south of the Litani, which is located some 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the Israel-Lebanon border. Hezbollah has blatantly violated that resolution and regularly launches attacks on Israel from near the border. The UN force charged with enforcing the resolution, UNIFIL, has done little to push back against such actions.

“When we complete the fighting in Gaza, we will be in a different reality, in which the military efforts will be redirected largely to the north,” Gallant told the group, in remarks provided by his office.

The defense minister said that “we will return residents to their homes only when the conditions to do so have been created, and we will be sure that we can provide them with security.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (right) meets with IDF soldiers near the northern border on December 6, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

In his on-the-record comments, Gallant did not mention the Litani River, but he did suggest that it would be possible to calm tensions along the border with a diplomatic solution.

“One option is to reach a different agreement, which could be similar to [UNSC Resolution] 1701, mediated by international parties,” the defense minister suggested. “They will respect our presence, our existence and our security, and we will respect the other side.”

But if such a deal is not possible, he added, Israel will be forced to act.

“The second possibility is that we will need to do this by force. We don’t want war, but if we get to a situation where we need to establish security here, we will not hesitate — just as we did not hesitate in the south.”

Gallant said that, so far, Israel has killed more than 100 Hezbollah operatives during the fighting and caused heavy damage to its “observation posts, command posts and weapons stockpiles.”

The defense minister said its ongoing military campaign in Gaza is sending a message to Hezbollah: “Every person in Lebanon can take the map, the aerial photograph of Gaza, place it on an aerial photograph of Beirut, and ask themselves if this is what they want to happen there.”

A picture taken from the Israeli side of border with Lebanon shows Israeli shelling around the southern Lebanese village of Aita al-Shaab on December 5, 2023. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Some 80,000 Israeli residents of communities located up to 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) south of the Lebanon border have been evacuated and are temporarily staying in hotels and other facilities, with funding from the state. Many have voiced concern that they will be exposed to attack once they return home if Hezbollah is not pushed away from the border area.

Since the start of the war, Israel has exchanged near daily fire with Hezbollah and other terror groups in south Lebanon. Six soldiers and three civilians have been killed on the Israeli side, and 107 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, including at least 14 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Hezbollah has said that 79 of its members have been killed since the war’s outbreak in southern Lebanon.

On Tuesday, the IDF issued an apology to Lebanon after an airstrike aimed at Hezbollah accidentally killed a Lebanese soldier.

The cross-border fire from Lebanon began shortly after Hamas launched its murderous assault on southern Israel on October 7, killing around 1,200 people and taking another 240 captive, with around 140 believed to still be held hostage.

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