In Beirut, Austrian FM urges sides to avoid escalation

Report: US fears Israel will launch spring offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon

Biden official says expanded air campaign could lead to ground op; IDF says ‘suspicious’ object downed after sirens blare in Haifa; IDF strikes Hezbollah rocket launchers

Residents and rescuers check the destruction after an overnight Israeli strike in the southern Lebanese village of Kafra, on February 29, 2024 (Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP)
Residents and rescuers check the destruction after an overnight Israeli strike in the southern Lebanese village of Kafra, on February 29, 2024 (Photo by MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP)

Officials close to US President Joe Biden are concerned that Israel is planning to launch a ground operation against Hezbollah in Lebanon in the coming months, US media reported Thursday.

According to the CNN report, the Biden administration has held intelligence briefings on the matter, preparing for the possibility that the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group cannot be made to retreat from the border through diplomatic measures.

Speaking to the network on the condition of anonymity, one senior official said that the Biden administration was “operating in the assumption” that a ground operation would occur in the coming months

The official added that it does not expect an operation to be imminent “in the next few weeks” but “perhaps later this spring.”

“An Israeli military operation is a distinct possibility,” the official stated.

A US intelligence official said Washington feared deepening strikes in Lebanon will “grow to an expansive air campaign reaching much further north into populated areas of Lebanon and eventually grow to a ground component as well.”

An Israeli warplane in the sky after an Israeli air strike in southern Lebanon, as it seen from the Israeli side of the border, February 27, 2024. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

Since October 8, Hezbollah has been trading fire with the Israeli military across Lebanon’s southern border in support of its Palestinian ally Hamas, which launched a devastating assault on Israel on October 7.

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

Hezbollah has named 219 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, 34 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 30 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

The Biden administration has tasked special envoy Amos Hochstein to forge a deal between to end the fighting. Additionally, France delivered a written proposal to Beirut aimed at ending hostilities earlier this month. It included negotiations to settle the disputed Lebanon-Israel frontier and a withdrawal of Hezbollah’s Radwan elite unit 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border.

Israel has warned that it will no longer tolerate the presence of Hezbollah along the Lebanon frontier, where it could attempt to carry out an attack similar to the massacre committed by Hamas in the south on October 7.

A failure of international diplomacy to force Hezbollah away from the border would necessitate an Israeli offensive, the country has said.

“If Amos were to successfully negotiate a standoff arrangement, then the probability of a military operation later this year would decline considerably,” the senior official said.

“I think what Israel is doing is they are raising this threat in the hope that there will be a negotiated agreement,” another senior Biden administration official said, referencing repeated threats by military leaders and senior politicians of a full-scale offensive in Lebanon

“Some Israeli officials suggest that it is more of an effort at creating a threat that they can utilize. Others speak of it more as a military necessity that’s going to happen,” the second official said, adding that growing voices advocate for an offensive.

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

In an overnight phone call Wednesday, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant stressed to US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin that Israel will not “tolerate threats against its citizens and violations of its sovereignty, and will take the measures required to ensure their security,” Gallant’s office said in a statement.

An Israeli official told CNN that Jerusalem was giving diplomacy a chance, but “alternate means” would be considered if talks fail.

But even if there is an agreement, a ground incursion may be inevitable, according to the first US official, which would allow Israel to “mow the grass,” destroying Hezbollah’s vast infrastructure near the border to slow down any attempted resurgence.

“Whatever kilometer buffer is negotiated will not keep Hezbollah out forever but will provide at least some assurance that they’re not going to return immediately,” the official said, adding that if an invasion doesn’t happen, the UNIFIL peacekeeping force and Lebanese Army would need to be deployed in vast numbers inside the planned buffer zone.

“The State of Israel will not return to the pre-war status quo in which Hezbollah poses a direct and immediate military threat to its security along the Israel-Lebanon border.” the US embassy in Israel told CNN in response to the report.

Sirens triggered in Haifa, ‘suspicious’ target downed

Sirens sounded near the northern city of Haifa on Thursday due to an interceptor missile being fired at a “suspicious aerial target,” the Israel Defense Forces said, as fighting persisted along the northern border.

The IDF said the target appears to have been successfully downed. There were no reports of damage or injuries.

Also on Thursday, the IDF said fighter jets carried out strikes on Hezbollah sites in southern Lebanon, including at rocket launchers. The targets in Jabal Blat included a complex where members of the terror group were gathered and several rocket launchers, the IDF said.

Residents and rescuers check the destruction after an overnight Israeli bombardment in the southern Lebanese village of Kafra, on February 29, 2024. (MAHMOUD ZAYYAT / AFP)

The IDF also said it shelled rocket launch sites following attacks this morning on the northern Israeli communities of Adamit and Shlomi.

There were no injuries in the rocket attacks.

Meanwhile, Syria’s pro-government Sham FM radio reported an alleged drone strike on a vehicle in the village of al-Nahariya, on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Qusayr, near the Lebanon border.

Sham FM said a “civilian” was killed in the strike.

Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes against Syria since at least 2013, primarily targeting pro-Iran forces, among them Hezbollah and efforts to send sophisticated arms to the terror group.

The strikes have multiplied during the almost five-month war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. More than half a dozen Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers have been killed in suspected Israeli strikes on Syria since December.

Israel rarely comments on individual strikes inside Syria but has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to expand its presence in the country.

Austria’s Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, who was visiting Lebanon, on Thursday urged Israel and Hezbollah against escalating the conflict and expressed hope for a pause in the fighting in Gaza in time for the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in March.

The Middle East has witnessed enough devastation and cruelty, said Alexander Schallenberg, speaking after meeting his Lebanese counterpart in Beirut.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, left, speaks to journalists during a joint press conference with his Lebanese counterpart Abdallah Bouhabib in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, February 29, 2024. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

“Everybody is asked not to escalate and it always takes two sides,” Schallenberg said.

“The region has accounted enough devastation, enough cruelty and we should try to solve the problems and not create further problems,” Schallenberg said.

He also criticized Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels who have been attacking ships in the Red Sea, also in support of Hamas in Gaza, saying: “They think they can play with fire without getting burnt.”

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Abdallah Bouhabib urged for a deal for a disputed stretch of the Israel-Lebanon border, similar to the deal reached through US mediation in 2022 over the two countries’ disputed maritime border. He said the problem could be solved when Israel withdraws from disputed areas, including the Mount Dov area, also known as Shebaa Farms, that Israel captured from Syria in 1967.

“Israel would return all the Lebanese land to us and then the problem of Hezbollah and Israel will be at least partly solved,” Bouhabib said.

Both Israel and the UN say that Mount Dov was not Lebanese land before its capture in the Six Day War.

Emmanuel Fabian contributed to this report

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