Hezbollah has rejected moving its forces away from border — US, Lebanese officials

Amid ongoing attacks on northern Israel and threat of larger war, US envoy Hochstein meets top officials in Beirut, says Washington ‘would like to see a diplomatic solution’

Senior US envoy Amos Hochstein, left, gestures as he meets with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Senior US envoy Amos Hochstein, left, gestures as he meets with Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, in Beirut, Lebanon, January 11, 2024. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

The Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group has rebuffed Washington’s initial proposal for stopping clashes with neighboring Israel, such as pulling its fighters further from the border, but remains open to US diplomacy to avoid a ruinous war, Lebanese officials said Thursday.

US envoy Amos Hochstein has been leading a diplomatic outreach to restore security at the Israel-Lebanon frontier as the wider region teeters dangerously toward a major escalation of the conflict ignited by the shock Hamas incursion into southern Israel on October 7.

Hochstein met Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, foreign minister, army commander and speaker of parliament in an hours-long visit to the Lebanese capital on Thursday.

Branded a terrorist organization by Washington, Hezbollah has not been directly involved in talks, three Lebanese officials and a European diplomat said. Instead, Hochstein’s ideas were passed on by Lebanese mediators, they said.

One suggestion floated last week was that border hostilities be scaled back in tandem with Israeli moves toward lower-intensity operations in Gaza, the three Lebanese sources and a US official said.

A proposal was also communicated to Hezbollah that its fighters move seven kilometers (4 miles) from the border, two of the three Lebanese officials said. That would still leave fighters much closer than Israel’s public demand of a 30-kilometer (19-mile) withdrawal to the Litani River stipulated in a 2006 UN resolution.

Hezbollah has dismissed both ideas as unrealistic, the Lebanese officials and the diplomat said. The group has long ruled out giving up weapons or withdrawing fighters, many of whom hail from the border region and melt into society when there are not hostilities.

Since October 8, one day after the deadly Hamas massacre in southern Israel, Hezbollah has engaged in cross-border fire on a near-daily basis, launching rockets, drones and missiles at northern Israel it says are in support of Hamas. Israel has responded with its own regular strikes on Hezbollah targets.

“Hezbollah is ready to listen,” a senior Lebanese official familiar with the group’s thinking said, while emphasizing that the organization saw the ideas presented by Hochstein on a visit to Beirut last week as unrealistic.

Hezbollah’s position is that it will fire rockets at Israel until there is a full ceasefire in Gaza. Israel has said it will continue its campaign in Gaza until it has ended Hamas’s rule over the territory and brought back the roughly 132 Israelis still being held there, of the some 240 who were taken hostage on October 7.

Hochstein said on Thursday he was hopeful diplomacy could yet calm tensions on the border.

IDF artillery units near the Israeli border with Lebanon, northern Israel, January 17, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

“I firmly believe that the people of Lebanon do not want to see an escalation of the current crisis to further conflict,” he told reporters in Beirut. “I’m hopeful that we can continue to work on this effort to arrive together, all of us on both sides of the border, with a solution that will allow for all people in Lebanon and Israel to live with guaranteed security and return to a better future.”

Hochstein said the US “would like to see a diplomatic solution,” and “it is our job to get one.”

Israeli artillery unit firing shells toward Lebanon from northern Israel on January 15, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The constant attacks on communities in northern Israel led to the evacuation of almost all Israelis living within several kilometers from the border. Jerusalem has warned that the current situation is unacceptable, and that the continued presence of Hezbollah along its border, threatening those communities, will not be tolerated. Officials have repeatedly said a wider conflict is likely should diplomacy not bring a solution.

Israel’s Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment on “reports of diplomatic discussions” in response to questions from Reuters. Spokespeople for Hezbollah and the Lebanon government did not immediately respond to detailed requests for comment.

Hezbollah has, however, signaled that once the Gaza war is over it could be open to Lebanon negotiating a mediated deal over disputed areas at the border, the three Lebanese officials said, a possibility alluded to by Hezbollah’s leader in a speech this month.

“After the war in Gaza, we are ready to support Lebanese negotiators to turn the threat into opportunity,” one senior Hezbollah official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He did not address specific proposals.

Meanwhile, the IDF said fighter jets carried out strikes on Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon’s Odaisseh.

It also said troops struck targets in the areas of Kafr Kila and Marjayoun.

The IDF said two projectiles were fired from Lebanon at the Arab al-Aramshe area in Israel earlier, with both landing in open areas, causing no damage.

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