Israel said pressing mediators for Lebanon solution by month’s end as combat continues

Washington Post says IDF plans to ramp up fight if deal not reached soon, though Jerusalem has not specified ‘hard deadline’ for negotiations

Smoke billowing over the Lebanese village of Odaisseh during Israeli strikes, January 20, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)
Smoke billowing over the Lebanese village of Odaisseh during Israeli strikes, January 20, 2024. (jalaa marey / AFP)

Israel plans to escalate fighting on the Lebanese border with Hezbollah if a long-term diplomatic agreement is not reached soon, The Washington Post reported Friday.

An unnamed Western diplomat and three Lebanese officials were cited as sources in the article.

A US official told the publication on Friday that Israel has not put forward a “hard deadline” but the officials said that Jerusalem was looking at the end of January as a target for a potential agreement, as Washington and the European Union work to avoid a major conflict.

The US official said the window of opportunity for talks was narrowing.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lior Haiat told The Washington Post: “The Israeli position is that we prefer a diplomatic solution, and if a diplomatic solution will not be possible, we will have to act on our own.”

The IDF said Saturday that it had carried out several waves of airstrikes against Hezbollah targets in southern Lebanon, in response to attacks on northern Israel.

The sites hit by fighter jets in southern Lebanon’s Odaisseh and Houla included an observation post, rocket launch positions and other infrastructure belonging to the terror group, according to the IDF.

The IDF said one projectile was earlier fired from Lebanon at the Mount Dov area, landing in an open area.

The army said that overnight Friday-Saturday, tanks also carried out shelling in the Mount Dov area, to “remove a threat.”

And a suspected Israeli strike on southern Lebanon killed two members of the Gaza-based Hamas terror group as they were traveling in a car, three security sources in Lebanon told Reuters. Israel did not confirm that specific attack.

In a call Thursday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told his American counterpart Lloyd Austin that Israel was nearing a decision point on Lebanon, as Hezbollah presses its daily attacks on the northern border.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a briefing with commanders in the IDF Judea and Samaria Division on January 14, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Since October 8, a day after the Hamas killing spree in southern Israel, Hezbollah has engaged in cross-border fire on a near-daily basis, launching rockets, drones and missiles at northern Israel in a campaign it says is in support of Hamas. The attacks forced most residents within several kilometers of the border to evacuate. Israel has responded with its own strikes on Hezbollah targets and has warned it will not be able to tolerate the terrorists’ continued presence on the border.

Lebanese officials said Thursday that Hezbollah had rebuffed Washington’s initial proposal for stopping clashes with Israel, which included pulling its fighters further from the border, but remained open to US diplomacy to avoid a ruinous war.

In his call with Austin Thursday, Gallant said Israel had a duty to restore security and allow the return of evacuated Israeli residents to their homes along the border, and although Israel would prefer to do this through diplomacy, it was “prepared to do this through military force,” a statement from the defense minister’s office said.

Touring the Lebanon border Friday, Gallant said that “as long as fighting continues in the south, there will be fighting in the north.”

“But we will not accept this reality for an extended period. There will come a moment when, if we do not reach a diplomatic agreement in which Hezbollah respects the right of the residents to live here in security, we will have to ensure that security by force,” he said.

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.

The country’s political and military leaders have repeatedly stated that Hezbollah will have to withdraw its forces from the border area to north of the Litani River, as required by 2006’s UN Resolution 1701, and that this will be achieved either diplomatically or by force.

Resolution 1701 ended the Second Lebanon War, in which neither side won a decisive victory.

File: 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)

Figures shared by the IDF on the 100th day of war showed that in the months since October 7, more than 2,000 projectiles have been launched by Hezbollah and armed Palestinian groups along the Lebanon border.

Six civilians have been killed on the Israeli side, including a septuagenarian and her son, who died this week when an anti-tank missile slammed into their home in Kfar Yuval. In addition to the civilian deaths, nine IDF soldiers and reservists have been killed.

Across the border, Hezbollah has named 163 members who have been killed in the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon along with some in Syria. An additional 20 operatives from other terror groups in Lebanon have also been killed, as well as 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists.

International figures, including US special envoy Amos Hochstein and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have been dispatched to the region in recent weeks in an attempt to cool the tensions along the Israel-Lebanon border, but seemingly to no avail, with Israel saying it will not accept a continued clear and present threat to the country’s northern residents.

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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