An American envoy relayed a message from Israel to Lebanese officials saying the Jewish state is not interested in an escalation with Lebanon over a number of mounting disputes between two sides, including over the construction of a border wall by Israel, a senior Lebanese government official said Thursday.
“Regarding the visit of the American envoy, he held talks regarding the wall with Israel and said there is no call for concern and there is no direction toward escalation. He assured the Lebanese that Israel does not want escalation,” the Lebanese official said, according to Reuters.
The report added that both Lebanese and Israeli officials had said David Satterfield, the acting assistant US secretary of state, visited Israel last week and was in Lebanon this week in a bid to mediate between Jerusalem and Beirut.
Lebanon’s top security body on Wednesday instructed the country’s military to confront any Israeli “aggression” on its land or maritime borders.
The statement by the Higher Defense Council did not elaborate, but it comes amid escalating tensions between the two neighbors, which are technically at war.
The dispute is centered around a border wall the IDF is constructing along the boundary between the two countries, contested rights to offshore natural gas exploration, and Israeli warnings that Iran — through its proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah — is turning the country into a forward base to manufacture rockets and attack the Jewish state.
On Monday, Lebanese military officials told their Israeli counterparts during face-to-face talks that the border wall violates Lebanon’s sovereign territory.
Israel has been building the obstacle — made up of a collection of berms, cliffs and concrete barriers — for a long time, but it has only now angered Beirut.
Hezbollah, a powerful terror group considered to have more military clout than the Lebanese army itself, recently threatened to open fire on IDF soldiers building the barrier, Israel’s Hadashot TV news reported last week.
The message was delivered to Jerusalem via UNIFIL, the report said. The UN force, fearing a possible escalation, passed the message on to the US and French ambassadors, who updated the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on the matter.
The Israeli government, unimpressed, responded with a threatening message of its own, the report said. Israel said it was acting in its own sovereign territory in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution adopted after Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000.
Israel does not intend to halt the construction, Jerusalem said, and Hezbollah will “pay dearly” if it tries to inflame tensions. “Israel’s reaction will be strong and painful,” sources in Israel’s security establishment were quoted as saying.
Israel has also threatened to keep Iran from building factories to manufacture advanced missiles in Lebanon. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned the country’s enemies “not to test us,” and said the IDF was prepared for “every scenario.”
Tensions also flared last week when Lebanon issued an offshore oil and gas exploration tender on the country’s maritime border, prompting a war of words with Israel which has laid claim to one of the fields in question.
Lebanese officials say the country will start exploratory offshore drilling in 2019, and that Lebanon wants to assert its resource rights along the length of its maritime territories.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called the move “very provocative,” and suggested that Lebanon had put out a tender to international groups for a gas field “that is by all accounts ours.”
His comments drew sharp condemnation from Lebanese officials, including Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who described the statement as a “blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects.”
Hezbollah has issued pamphlets and a video threatening Israel’s offshore gas platforms with attack. “Whoever abuses oil and gas sites in Lebanon’s economic waters — their sites will be abused,” one pamphlet obtained by the Ynet new site read in broken Hebrew. “They know Lebanon can do this.”
A clip set to dramatic music quoted Liberman claiming ownership over the gas sites, then cut to contradictory claims by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, followed by footage of missiles ostensibly being launched at Israeli gas platforms.
AP contributed to this report.