Senior official: Nasrallah sought ceasefire as IDF responded to Hezbollah strike
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Senior official: Nasrallah sought ceasefire as IDF responded to Hezbollah strike

Israel says Lebanese PM Hariri reached out to 3 countries on behalf of Iran-backed group with message that it was not interested in further escalation

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

(L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the opening of a Honduran Trade Office, in Jerusalem on September 1, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speak during a news conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington on August 15, 2019. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(L) Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the opening of a Honduran Trade Office, in Jerusalem on September 1, 2019. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL) Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speak during a news conference with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department in Washington on August 15, 2019. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The Lebanese government reached out to three countries on Sunday on behalf of Hezbollah in an effort to convey to Israel that it was not interested in any further escalation, as the IDF hurled some 100 shells at targets across the border in response to the terror group’s firing of anti-tank missiles at Israel, a senior defense official said Monday.

The message from Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was relayed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to the governments of France, Egypt and the US, the official told Israeli reporters in a phone briefing.

“We received inquiries from Lebanon through three countries that implored us that there was no need to respond,” he said.

At 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, the IDF released a statement saying a barrage of Hezbollah anti-tank missiles hit an army base as well as military vehicles near Avivim. The army then launched heavy retaliatory fire.

The senior official briefing reporters said that Israel had not taken Nasrallah’s message into account in its eventual decision to hold its fire. “Nasrallah’s considerations do not bother me, as long as we advance our goals against the threats.”

Hezbollah supporters watch a televised speech by the Lebanese terror group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah, in the town of Al-Ain in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, on August 25, 2019. (AFP)

“The bottom line is that Hezbollah sent us messages to hold our fire,” the official boasted.

The Israeli security establishment — the official said — believes Hariri is beginning to understand the predicament in which Hezbollah has been putting his country and “where Lebanon’s situation is going” if it fails to clamp down on the terror group that wields considerable influence there.

“If Hezbollah attacks, Nasrallah knows… what else awaits him,” the senior official threatened.

Acting on three fronts

The senior official also appeared to all but take credit for attacks attributed to Israel in Iraq and Lebanon that took place within hours of Jerusalem’s foiling of an Iranian drone attack from Syria.

Until now, Israel has only publicly taken credit for the Syria raid, while an August 25 strike on an Iranian weapons depot in Iraq’s Anbar province and a drone attack on a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut that same weekend have officially gone unattributed.

A man fixes a Hezbollah flag at the ‘Garden of Iran’ Park in the Lebanese village of Maroun al-Ras on September 1, 2019, as fires blaze on the Lebanese side along the border following an exchange of fire with Israel. (Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)

“In recent days, we found ourselves surrounded on several fronts… We needed to act in a time span of 24 hours on three different fronts and we planned what to do in advance,” the official said, apparently referring to Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. “We were in simultaneous attack mode in multiple places.”

The official added that he had directed the military roughly five months ago to prioritize the foiling of a joint Hezbollah-Iranian project to manufacture precision-guided missiles in Lebanon.

According to the official, the project moved up the Israeli security establishments’s list of threats, overtaking the issue Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and was second only to Tehran’s nuclear program.

“We changed the order of our threats based on the understanding that we cannot afford [allowing] precision-guided missiles in Lebanon,” the official explained, adding that the Islamic Republic has began struggling in its effort to gain a foothold in Syria and has since worked to do so in Iraq, Yemen and other neighboring countries.

“We are handling a number of fronts, some of which are not known to the media or the public,” the official said.

This picture taken on September 1, 2019, near the northern Israeli town of Avivim shows a fire blazing in a field along the border with Israel on the Lebanese side following an exchange of fire. (ALAA MAREY / AFP)

He added that Israel has many operations ready to address threats on the various fronts, but at the same time is not interested in dragging the region into war.

Also Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a video statement on Sunday’s exchange of fire with Hezbollah, saying Israel “acted with determination and responsibility. We kept our citizens safe and also guarded the well-being of our soldiers.”

“The man in the bunker in Beirut knows exactly why he is in a bunker,” Netanyahu said of Nasrallah. “We will continue to do everything necessary to keep Israel safe — at sea, on the ground and in the air — and we will also continue to work against the threat of the precise missiles.”

In a threat of his own, Foreign Minister Israel Katz warned on Monday that Jerusalem would strike Lebanon hard if the government failed to rein in Hezbollah.

After speaking on the phone with his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, Katz said he had asked Maas to convey a message to the Lebanese government: “If you don’t thwart Hezbollah’s activity against Israel, the whole of Lebanon will be struck, and it will be severely hurt.”

Vehicles of a convoy of United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) on a road along the border between Lebanon and Israel near the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Kila on September 1, 2019. (Ali DIA / AFP)

Maas was said to have replied that Germany views Hezbollah in Lebanon “similarly” to how Israel views it, and that Berlin would consider designating it a terror group soon. There was no immediate confirmation of that statement by Germany.

A tense calm took hold in northern Israel on Monday following the exchange of fire the day before. Israel and Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war in 2006, have indicated they do not want to go to war but appeared on a collision course in recent days after Hezbollah vowed it would retaliate for two strikes against the Iran-backed terrorist group — one in Syria claimed by Israel, and another, in Beirut, that the group lays at Israel’s door but Israel has not acknowledged.

Hezbollah said it fired anti-tank missiles at Israel on Sunday and destroyed an Israeli military vehicle across the border, killing and injuring soldiers. The IDF said no Israeli troops were injured by the two or three missiles fired by Hezbollah. Pictures and videos showing injured soldiers being evacuated had been a ploy meant to trick Hezbollah into thinking it had caused casualties, Israel said.

Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Qassem, said Sunday night that the group “wants to preserve deterrence and the rules of engagement in order to prevent something worse from happening.”

By Sunday evening, the Israeli army had allowed civilians to return to routine. Schools on Monday opened as normal and farmers were given the go-ahead to work fields near the border. However, Israeli officials said troops along the northern border remained on high alert.

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