Gallant warns UN chief: Potential for violence growing amid Hezbollah provocations

Defense minister meets Antonio Guterres at New York headquarters, calls for greater powers for UNIFIL peacekeeping force to deescalate tensions along Lebanon border

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the UN headquarters in New York, August 29, 2023. (United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (left) meets with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, at the UN headquarters in New York, August 29, 2023. (United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday that the likelihood of an outbreak of violence with the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon was mounting, calling on United Nations peacekeepers to work to reduce the recently raised tensions.

Gallant made the comments during a closed-door meeting with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN headquarters in New York, his office said in a statement.

“The potential for a violent escalation on Israel’s northern border is growing, as a result of flagrant violations by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah,” Gallant said in remarks provided by his office in English. “The UN must act immediately.”

The minister demanded an “immediate UN intervention in deescalating tensions” by strengthening and increasing the freedom of movement of a peacekeeping force, known as the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, in the border area.

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.

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.

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)

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.

According to Gallant’s office, the pair also discussed Iran, “with an emphasis on its nuclear ambitions and export of terrorism and weapons.”

“Minister Gallant emphasized the Lebanese case as an example of the consequences of Iranian entrenchment and support,” his office said.

Separately, Gallant’s office said the minister expressed his appreciation to Guterres for his “personal contribution and investment” in addressing the issue of Israelis being held captive by the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip. “He asked for the Secretary’s assistance in resolving this issue,” his office said. Along with two Israeli citizens who entered Gaza of their own accord, Hamas holds the remains of two Israeli soldiers who were killed during fighting in 2014.

In a Hebrew video statement after the meeting, Gallant said that Guterres committed to trying his best to ensure that UNIFIL will help reduce tensions.

“We know how to defend ourselves in any case but we are not interested in friction,” Gallant said.

Israeli envoy to the UN Gilad Erdan, who was also in the meeting, said the talks with Guterres were “very important,” with the UN Security Council set to vote this week on renewing UNIFIL’s mandate, “which is supposed to prevent a war between Israel and Lebanon.”

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)

“What you stressed [to Guterres], that if UNIFIL does not receive all the powers to deal with what Hezbollah is doing on our northern border, Hezbollah may find itself bringing a heavy catastrophe on Lebanon… this is an important message of deterrence,” Erdan said.

Gallant was set to later brief envoys of members of the UN Security Council on matters related to Israeli defense ahead of the vote on the UNIFIL mandate, according to his office.

Gallant was not slated to meet with any American defense officials while in the US, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly barred ministers from visiting Washington until he’s invited to the White House. Gallant has met with US defense officials in Israel, as well as in Brussels.

The meeting with Guterres 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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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