ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 141

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In Israel, US envoy said to report progress in talks to remove Hezbollah from border

Amos Hochstein meets with Gallant in Tel Aviv amid shuttle diplomacy efforts to deliver agreement, defuse roiling tensions on Israel’s northern border.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) and military officials meet with US envoy Amos Hochstein (L) in Tel Aviv, February 4, 2024. (Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) and military officials meet with US envoy Amos Hochstein (L) in Tel Aviv, February 4, 2024. (Defense Ministry)

US special envoy Amos Hochstein was in Israel this weekend for talks with Israeli officials on a developing framework to push Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy, away from Israel’s northern border amid roiling tensions and daily exchanges of fire.

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.

He met with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv for ongoing discussions on Saturday. Channel 12 reported that the US envoy has conveyed “signs” of a possible diplomatic solution, which will include Hezbollah moving back from the border. There was no official confirmation of this.

According to the report, senior Israeli officials were feeling optimistic about a potential deal for the first time since the start of the war almost five months ago.

Hebrew-language media reported Saturday that the brewing US-brokered proposal includes three phases: first, an interim agreement that will include an 8-kilometer (4.9-mile) to 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) withdrawal of Hezbollah forces from areas near the boundary with Israel; second, an increase in the deployment of UN forces and the Lebanese army in the area; and third, the return of evacuated residents to their homes in northern Israel and south Lebanon. The framework will also include talks on demarcating an actual land border between Israel and Lebanon and possible US-led incentives for Beirut to agree to a deal.

Israel and Lebanon never agreed on a land border, following Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, keeping to a UN-enforced ceasefire “Blue Line” instead.

Channel 12 reported Saturday that Israel has tentatively accepted the framework, pending developments on a separate deal brokered by Qatar and Egypt to pause fighting in Gaza and free hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

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)

Hezbollah-led forces have been attacking Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis since October 8, a day after its ally Hamas launched its October 7 massacre, killing 1,200 people across northern Israel and abducting 253 people of all ages. Hezbollah says its attacks are to support Gaza amid the war Hamas triggered through its attack.

As Israel launched a military campaign, including a ground incursion, to destroy Hamas, remove it from power in Gaza, and release the hostages, it also rushed forces to the north and evacuated some 80,000 northern residents as a precaution.

Top Israeli officials have repeatedly threatened to go to war in Lebanon after the campaign to root out Hamas in Gaza is over, with the aim of driving Hezbollah away from the border in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the Second Lebanon War in 2006. They have increasingly warned that if the international community does not push Hezbollah — which, like Hamas, is sworn to Israel’s destruction — away from the border through diplomatic means, Israel will take action.

In a readout of his meeting with Hochstein, Gallant’s office said the defense minister was thankful for Hochstein’s efforts and reiterated that Israel was “committed to our citizens” and “ready to resolve this crisis via diplomatic understandings.”

“However, we are also prepared for any other scenario,” Gallant warned.

The defense minister asserted Friday that a potential pause in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza will not necessarily apply to the ongoing hostilities with Hezbollah.

“If Hezbollah thinks that when there’s a pause in fighting in the south, we will hold our fire against it [too], it’s sorely mistaken,” Gallant said.

“Until we reach a situation in which it’s possible to restore security for residents of the north, we will not stop. Whether we reach this through a [diplomatic] arrangement or military means, we will [restore] calm,” Gallant said.

This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meeting with soldiers in the IDF’s Alpine Unit at Mount Hermon, February 2, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On his trip to Israel this weekend, Hochstein also met Saturday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz.

According to Ynet, Gantz also expressed to Hochstein his appreciation for the special envoy’s work and for the US’s role in addressing the challenges in the region, chief among them Iran. Gantz told Hochstein that the state of Lebanon is responsible for the terrorist acts launched from its territory and warned that Israel would not hesitate to act to remove Hezbollah as a threat if it is not pushed back from the “Blue Line.”

Hochstein was first dispatched to the region last month to try to soothe tensions and work out an agreement. He met with Lebanese and Israeli officials and said both countries “prefer” a diplomatic deal to end hostilities.

A few weeks after his visit, Lebanese officials said Hezbollah rebuffed Washington’s initial proposal for stopping clashes with Israel but said it remains open to US diplomacy to avoid a ruinous war.

A proposal was at the time communicated to Hezbollah that its fighters move seven kilometers (4 miles) from the boundary, 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, as stipulated in the 2006 UN resolution.

Hezbollah dismissed both ideas as unrealistic, the officials 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.

So far, the skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah have resulted in six civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 179 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 22 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

On Saturday, IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said three troop divisions had been deployed to the northern border, in a strident warning to Hezbollah, while detailing strikes that Israel says have killed hundreds of terror operatives seeking to enflame the restive border.

The comments included rare acknowledgement of dozens of airstrikes inside Syria against the terror group. Hagari said the IDF is working to “reshape the security reality” on the northern border to allow some 80,000 Israelis displaced by months of incessant attacks to return home.

Israel will be “ready to attack immediately” if provoked, Hagari warned. “We do not choose war as our first priority, but we are certainly prepared.”

According to Hagari, since fighting on the northern border began in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 onslaught, the IDF has targeted more than 3,400 Hezbollah sites and struck more than 150 cells, killing some 200 operatives, mostly members of Hezbollah.

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