US dispatches senior envoy to cool seething tensions on Israel-Lebanon border

Amos Hochstein arrives in Israel, Blinken due early next week; US all but backs alleged Israeli hit on senior Hamas terror chief in Lebanon

Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden, speaks to journalists at Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport after his meeting with Lebanese officials, in Beirut, Lebanon, August 31, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)
Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden, speaks to journalists at Beirut Rafik Hariri International Airport after his meeting with Lebanese officials, in Beirut, Lebanon, August 31, 2023. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

US President Joe Biden dispatched special envoy Amos Hochstein to the region as Washington intensifies its diplomatic engagement in a bid to lower roiling tensions between Israel and Iranian proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hochstein, who was heavily involved in shepherding talks that culminated in Israel and Lebanon demarcating a maritime border in 2022, arrived in Israel Thursday.

A senior Biden administration official briefing reporters Wednesday said Hochstein just met with Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib and that the US has a “diplomatic effort underway to help resolve some of the tension” between Israel and Hezbollah, without elaborating further.

Israeli officials plan to tell Hochstein that without a diplomatic agreement in place to push Hezbollah away from the border, it won’t be able to return residents to northern towns, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.

According to a report in Ynet earlier this week, Israel is hoping the agreement will lead to talks on setting an official border between the countries, which only have a ceasefire line and technically remain in a state of war.

Hochstein’s trip will come two days after a strike blamed on Israel killed Hamas’s political number two, terror chief Salah al-Arouri, in a Hezbollah stronghold in the southern Beirut suburbs on Tuesday, exacerbating tensions between Israel and Hezbollah who have been engaged in daily exchanges of fire since October 8, a day after Hamas launched its murderous assault on southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking some 240 others hostage.

People gather at the site of a strike, reported by Lebanese media to be an Israeli strike targeting a Hamas office in the southern suburb of Beirut on January 2, 2024; Inset: Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri, who was killed in the blast. (Anwar Amro/AFP; social media)

Hezbollah and allied Palestinian terror factions have since engaged in daily cross-border clashes with Israeli troops along the Lebanon border. Tens of thousands of Israelis have been evacuated from northern border towns, which have been repeatedly targeted by terror groups.

The attack on Arouri has sparked fears of a broader conflagration as he is the most high-profile figure to be killed since the October 7 Hamas massacres. His death also marked the first strike on the Lebanese capital since hostilities started.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who’s made a number of trips to the region since October 7, will also head back to the Middle East on Thursday in a bid to stem tensions, with a stop in Israel early next week.

Blinken will leave Washington Thursday night “for stops in a number of capitals, including Israel,” a senior US official told reporters, providing no further details.

US President Joe Biden has spoken by phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days as Washington pushes for an increase of humanitarian aid into Gaza and for the release of hostages held by Hamas, all while trying to prevent the eruption of all-out war on other fronts.

‘No clear desire’ for war

The senior Biden administration official who spoke to reporters Wednesday said Washington does not think Hezbollah is seeking to fully open up a new front against Israel following Arouri’s killing.

“I think from everything that we can tell, there is no clear desire from Hezbollah to go to war with Israel, and vice versa,” the senior administration official said.

The senior Biden official didn’t go as far as to justify the alleged assassination, but noted that the US had put a $5 million reward for information on the terror chief, adding that senior members of Hamas “must be held accountable.”

The official also echoed an assertion made Wednesday by one of Netanyahu’s spokesmen who ostensibly sought to urge Hezbollah not to respond by declaring that the assassination specifically targeted Hamas figures and was not an attack on the Iranian proxy or on Lebanon.

Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri at his desk in Beirut with an M16 rifle laid in front of him, August 27, 2023. (Shehab News)

In a briefing Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Matt Miller said Arouri was a “brutal terrorist centrally responsible for the attacks on October 7 and other attacks against innocent civilians going back well beforehand.”

Pressed whether the US feels the alleged Israeli decision to kill Arouri harms Washington’s desire to prevent the Israel-Hamas war from spreading, Miller said the concern for escalation between Israel and Lebanon is not any higher today than it was at the beginning of the conflict.

“We remain incredibly concerned, as we have been from the outset of this conflict, about the risk of the conflict spreading into other fronts… [but] I wouldn’t say that our concern is any higher today than it has been from the beginning,” Miller said

While he appeared to all but nod in approval of the assassination, Miller did say during the press briefing that the US was not informed in advance of Arouri’s assassination.

Miller didn’t go as far as to confirm that Israel was behind the attack but said: “I’ll leave it to the government of Israel to speak to their actions.”

Both Hezbollah and Hamas have accused Israel of killing Arouri, with Hezbollah terror chief Hassan Nasrallah describing the attack as a “major and dangerous crime” that “will not go unanswered and unpunished.”

In a televised address Wednesday, Nasrallah warned Israel against waging war on Lebanon, saying the terror group “will fight without restraint, without rules, without limits and without restrictions.”

Supporters of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group raise their fists and cheer, as they listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speaking via a video link during a ceremony to mark the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Iran’s Quds Force General Qassem Soleimani, January 3, 2024. (AP/Hassan Ammar)

The address had been pre-planned to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the death of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed by a US drone strike in Iraq in January 2020, and came hours after over 100 people were killed in two explosions near Soleimani’s grave in southern Iran.

State media and Iranian officials claimed the explosions were a “terror attack” and have pointed the finger at the US and Israel.

The United States had earlier rejected any suggestions that it or Israel were involved while Israel declined to comment.

“The United States was not involved in any way… We have no reason to believe that Israel was involved in this explosion,” Miller said.

The unclaimed attacks, which sparked fears of a widening conflict in the region, rattled global markets, where oil prices jumped more than three percent and sparked global condemnation.

The senior US administration official who spoke to reporters said the attack in Iran was similar to ones carried out by the Islamic State in the past.

“That’s the going assumption at the moment,” said the official.

Iranian emergency services arrive at the site where two explosions in quick succession struck a crowd marking the anniversary of the 2020 killing of IRGC general Qassem Soleimani, near the Saheb al-Zaman Mosque in the southern Iranian city of Kerman on January 3, 2024. (Mehr News/AFP)

Iran has multiple foes who could be behind the assault, including exile groups, armed organizations and state actors. While Israel has carried out attacks in Iran over its nuclear program, it has conducted targeted assassinations, not mass casualty bombings. Sunni extremist groups, including the Islamic State group, have conducted large-scale attacks in the past that killed civilians in Shiite-majority Iran, though not in relatively peaceful Kerman.

Iran also has seen mass protests in recent years, including those over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in 2022. The country also has been targeted by exile groups in attacks dating back to the turmoil surrounding its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Lebanon does not want war

Lebanon has repeatedly signaled that it does not want war, as Israel continues to fight Hamas in Gaza and respond to Hezbollah’s attacks.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib told CNN Wednesday he was trying to convince Hezbollah to back off and keep the group from pushing Lebanon into war with Israel, but admitted Beirut has little control over the powerful terror group.

“It’s not like we can order them. We’re not claiming that but we can convince them and I think it is working in this direction,” he told the station during a visit to Washington.

He said Lebanon does “not want any war” and feared the skirmishes between Israel and the terror group, which have been mainly limited to the border region, could spread.

A picture taken from northern Israel shows smoke billowing from across the border in south Lebanon on January 3, 2024. (Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

“We don’t like a regional war because it’s dangerous to everybody. Dangerous to Lebanon, dangerous to Israel and to the countries surrounding Israel,” he said, also accusing Israel of being behind the bombings in Iran, without providing any evidence.

In late December, Lebanon’s prime minister, Najib Mikati, said Beirut was ready to implement the UN resolution that would help end Hezbollah’s cross-border attacks on Israel if Israel also complies and withdraws from disputed territory.

UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, called for the removal of armed personnel south of Lebanon’s Litani River, except for UN peacekeepers and the Lebanese army and state security forces. But Hezbollah has long entrenched itself across much of southern Lebanon for decades, where it holds strong support, and has regularly launched rockets against Israel, while Beirut does nothing to rein in the group.

Mikati’s office said the premier was referring to territory claimed by Lebanon that remains occupied following Israel’s withdrawal from the country’s south in 2000: the disputed Shebaa Farms, the Kfarshuba hills and the Lebanese side of the village of Ghajar.

Israeli diplomatic officials have suggested in recent weeks that Jerusalem is open to a diplomatic solution to the conflagration along its northern border, but threatened that if a deal is not reached under which Hezbollah retreats from the border, an all-out war could be possible.

In mid-December, war cabinet Minister Benny Gantz warned that Israel would be forced to push Hezbollah away from the Lebanese border if the international community could not do so through diplomatic means.

Gantz warned, “If the world doesn’t get Hezbollah away from the border, Israel will do it.”

Speaking Wednesday after Arouri’s killing, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi told security officials that the military was in a “very strong state of readiness in the north.”

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