Report: Lebanon FM has signaled country wants peace, not war

Hezbollah’s No. 2 says it will halt its attacks if Gaza ceasefire reached

But Naim Qassem is unclear how terror group would respond if war dies down without official truce; 15 rockets fired at Kiryat Shmona, sparking fires

Hezbollah's deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon, July 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Hezbollah's deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon, July 2, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

BEIRUT — The deputy leader of the Iran-backed Lebanese terror group Hezbollah said Tuesday the only sure path to a ceasefire on the Israel-Lebanon border is a full ceasefire in Gaza.

“If there is a ceasefire in Gaza, we will stop without any discussion,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said in an interview with The Associated Press at the group’s political office in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Hezbollah’s participation in the Israel-Hamas war has been as a “support front” for its ally, Palestinian terror group Hamas, Qassem said, and “if the war stops, this military support will no longer exist.”

But, he said, if Israel scales back its military operations without a formal ceasefire agreement and full withdrawal from Gaza, the implications for the Israel-Lebanon border conflict are less clear.

“If what happens in Gaza is a mix between ceasefire and no ceasefire, war and no war, we can’t answer [how we would react] now, because we don’t know its shape, its results, its impacts,” Qassem said during a 40-minute interview.

In recent weeks, with Gaza ceasefire talks faltering, fears have increased of an escalation on Israel’s northern front.

View of a fire that started from missiles launched from Lebanon near She’ar Yashuv, northern Israel, July 1, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

But the US and Israel hope that an imminent scaling back of intensive fighting in Gaza will provide the terror group with an “off-ramp” to back away from near-daily border attacks that have sent the region spiraling toward a larger conflict, two US and Israeli officials have told The Times of Israel last week.

Channel 12 news reported Tuesday that Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib has secretly sent a message to Foreign Minister Israel Katz via an intermediary, stating: “We are interested in peace, we don’t want war.”

“We need to return our residents safely to their homes. If this is not done through a diplomatic solution, it will be through war,” Katz was said to respond.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

The relatively low-level conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has displaced tens of thousands on both sides of the border.

International mediators have been trying to reach a deal that would secure freedom for the many hostages held by terrorists in Gaza and reach some form of ceasefire. However, gaps remain between Israel and Hamas on how permanent the lull in fighting would be.

Hamas has demanded an end to the war, and not just a pause in fighting. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to commit to a permanent end to the war until Israel realizes its goals of destroying Hamas’s military and governing capabilities and bringing home the 120 hostages still held by Hamas.

Last month, the Israel Defense Forces said it has “approved and validated” plans for an offensive in Lebanon if no diplomatic solution is reached to the ongoing clashes. Any decision to launch such an operation would have to come from the political leadership.

Some Israeli officials have said they are seeking a diplomatic solution to the standoff and hope to avoid war. At the same time, they have warned that the scenes of destruction seen in Gaza will be repeated in Lebanon if Hezbollah doesn’t cease its attacks.

Hezbollah is far more powerful than Hamas and is believed to have a vast arsenal of rockets and missiles capable of striking anywhere in Israel.

Rockets fired from southern Lebanon by Hezbollah are intercepted by the Iron Dome over the Upper Galilee on June 27, 2024. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Qassem said he doesn’t believe that Israel has the ability or has made a decision to launch a war at present. He warned that even if Israel intends to launch a limited operation in Lebanon that stops short of a full-scale war, it should not expect the fighting to remain limited.

“Israel can decide what it wants: limited war, total war, partial war,” he said. “But it should expect that our response and our resistance will not be within a ceiling and rules of engagement set by Israel… If Israel wages the war, it means it doesn’t control its extent or who enters into it.”

The latter was an apparent reference to Hezbollah’s allies in the Iran-backed so-called “axis of resistance” in the region. Armed groups in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere — and, potentially, Iran itself — could enter the fray in the event of a full-scale war in Lebanon, which might also pull in Israel’s strongest ally, the United States.

Meanwhile, on Monday evening, a barrage of some 15 rockets was fired from Lebanon at the Kiryat Shmona, the Israel Defense Forces said.

Ten of the rockets were intercepted by air defenses, and the other five impacted, causing no injuries, according to the military.

Hezbollah claimed responsibly, saying it had launched dozens of Katyusha rockets at a military base in the area.

Eight firefighting crews arrived to battle a blaze near Kiryat Shmona sparked by the volley, Fire and Rescue Services said.

The IDF also said Monday that its fighter jets had struck a building in southern Lebanon’s Yarine after a Hezbollah operative was identified entering the structure.

Earlier, a suspected drone was shot down by Israeli air defenses over southern Lebanon’s Kafr Kila, the military said.

Separately, the IDF said an Iron Dome missile was fired at another suspected drone over southern Lebanon, though it did not hit the target.

Amid the second incident, suspected drone infiltration sirens sounded in several communities in the Upper Galilee.

Both suspected drones did not enter Israeli airspace, according to the IDF.

In preparation for a possible escalation, the IDF’s newly formed 810th Mountains Regional Brigade, tasked with operating in the rugged Mount Hermon and Mount Dov regions in northern Israel, carried out its first exercise, simulating an offensive inside Lebanon, the military said.

The drill included “attack scenarios in Lebanon, including combat in dense vegetation [and] combat in urban areas,” the IDF said.

The 810th Mountains Regional Brigade carries out a drill in northern Israel, in a handout photo published by the military on July 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Mountains Brigade, commanded by Col. Liron Appleman, was established in March, replacing the Hermon Regional Brigade. The army said the move was part of “adapting the operational response to the changing reality on the Syria-Lebanon border.”

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 15 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 357 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 65 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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