Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Hezbollah terror chief Hassan Nasrallah to “calm down” Tuesday, as Israel braced for a possible retaliation from the Lebanese group in the north despite reported efforts by the US to cool tensions between Beirut and Jerusalem.
“I heard Nasrallah’s speech. I suggest he calm down,” Netanyahu said at a ceremony in Jerusalem.
In a fiery speech Sunday, Nasrallah vowed to exact revenge on the Jewish state following an Israeli strike against a weapons storage facility in Syria on Saturday night that left Hezbollah fighters dead. Israel has also been blamed for the apparent explosion or crash of two drones in a Hezbollah-controlled area of Beirut and an air raid on a Palestinian camp deep inside Lebanon.
Israel said the strike inside Syria had thwarted a plot by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps to launch explosives-laden drones into Israel, overseen by powerful Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, who heads the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s expeditionary Quds Force.
“[Nasrallah] knows full well that Israel knows how to defend itself well and pay back its enemies in kind. I want to tell him and Lebanon, which hosts this organization that is trying to destroy us, and I say this to Qassem Soleimani: Be careful what you say and be more careful what you do.”
Israel’s military has been gearing up for a possible reprisal attack from Hezbollah, an Iran-backed terror group that is part of the Lebanese government, deploying extra troops to the northern border and limiting some movement along the frontier.
On Monday, an Israeli military official warned that any Israeli response would be disproportionate, and Israel sent a message to Lebanon via the US that it would not limit its response to Hezbollah but would view all of Lebanon as a legitimate target, according to reports by Israeli news outlets.
Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported Tuesday that senior US officials were putting pressure on Lebanon to rein in Hezbollah in order to avoid an escalation in violence, and were also attempting to defuse potentially explosive tensions.
According to the paper, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Lebanese officials that Israel “did not intend to change the rules of the game” with the attack on the Iranian drone plot, explaining that the attack that killed Hezbollah personnel in Syria “was necessary to prevent an expected offensive from the Iranian side and that the Israeli forces confirmed that the headquarters was emptied of humans before bombarding it and that it didn’t intend to cause human casualties from Hezbollah’s ranks.”
He also reportedly said of the drone crashes in the Beirut neighborhood of Dahiyeh that “there was no intention to undertake an attack,” blaming the issue on a malfunction.
Pompeo reportedly told Lebanese officials that the US “acknowledges that what happened is a violation of international resolutions, but [holds] it is still possible to bring the situation back under control.”
Pompeo also urged Beirut, in the newspaper’s words, to “take a public position that prevents Hezbollah from carrying out military action against Israel.”
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and others have expressed worries that an Israeli reprisal could drag the country back into war.
The pro-Hezbollah paper said Britain and France were also involved in efforts to calm the situation. On Monday, Hariri met with envoys from the US, UK, France, China and Russia to complain about Israeli violations of UN Resolution 1701, which ended the war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 and set up a peacekeeping force on the border.
According to the report, unnamed French and British representatives “suggested that guarantees would be given that Israel will not repeat its aggression and warning that Israel will deliver a major blow to Lebanon if Hezbollah responds with an attack along the borders.”
It quoted UN envoy to Lebanon Jan Kubis as telling Lebanese President Michel Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri on Monday that Israel made a mistake, but “Lebanon should take advantage of the opportunity to go to the Security Council to receive a condemnation of all Israeli violations from the ground, air and sea,” and expressing “readiness to help Lebanon receive such a resolution.”
Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, told Kubis that Lebanon saw the alleged Israeli strikes as a “declaration of war.”
According to al-Akhbar, Hezbollah has rejected the international pressure to pull back from plans to retaliate.
In one of the last direct confrontations between Israel and Hezbollah — after the IDF allegedly killed two of the group’s members and an Iranian general in a 2015 airstrike — the Tehran-backed militia carried out an antitank guided missile attack on two Israeli military humvees in the disputed Shebaa Farms area along the Israeli-Lebanese border, killing two soldiers and injuring seven.