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Israel nears decision on Lebanon border offensive, army chief says

In World
June 04, 2024

By Dan Williams, Henriette Chacar and Maya Gebeily

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) -Israel is ready for an offensive along the northern border with Lebanon and is nearing a decision, the chief of staff said on Tuesday, as the Hezbollah movement said it was not seeking to widen the conflict but was ready to fight any war imposed on it.

The conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, which has been fought in parallel to the Gaza war, has intensified in recent days, adding to concerns that an even wider confrontation could break out between the heavily armed adversaries.

Israeli Military Chief of General Staff Herzi Halevi said the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were ready to move to an offensive in the north.

“We are prepared after a very good process of training up to the level of a General Staff exercise to move to an offensive in the north,” he said in a recorded statement. “We are approaching a decision point.”

The hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah have been their worst since they waged war in 2006, and tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border have been forced to flee their homes.

Hezbollah, an ally of Palestinian militant group Hamas, says it has been striking Israel in support of Palestinians under Israeli bombardment in Gaza. It has previously said it will cease fire when the Israeli offensive on Gaza stops.

Hezbollah deputy leader Sheikh Naim Qassem told broadcaster Al Jazeera that the group’s decision was not to widen the war but that it would fight one if it was imposed on it. Qassem said the Lebanon front would not stop until the Gaza war stops, Al Jazeera quoted him as saying.

Israel has gone to war numerous times in Lebanon.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said Washington does “not support a full war with Hezbollah” but Israel had the right to defend itself from Hezbollah attacks.

“We’ve heard Israeli leaders say the solution that they prefer is a diplomatic solution. And obviously that is the solution that we prefer too and that we’re trying to pursue,” he said.

The United States views Iran-backed Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

The European Union said it was “increasingly concerned” about rising tensions and forced displacement of civilians on both sides of the Israeli-Lebanese border and called for restraint from all sides.

“Nobody stands to win from a broader regional conflict,” the EU said in a statement. “A de-escalation of the situation would significantly contribute to the settlement of the broader conflict in the Middle East.”

Israeli government spokesperson David Mencer said the fighting in the area was “not a sustainable reality”, adding that Israel was committed to ensuring the return home of tens of thousands of Israelis evacuated from the north.

“It is up to Hezbollah to decide if this can be accomplished by diplomatic means or by force,” he said. “We are defending this country and no one should be surprised by our response.”

Amos Hochstein, a senior adviser to U.S. President Joe Biden at the heart of diplomatic efforts seeking de-escalation, said last week a land border agreement between Israel and Lebanon implemented in phases could dampen the conflict.

‘WE MUST… DESTROY THEM’

Earlier on Tuesday, Israeli far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir urged more military action.

“There cannot be peace in Lebanon while our land is hit and people here are evacuated,” Ben-Gvir said following a tour in the northern city of Kiryat Shmona in a video statement shared on X. “They’re setting fires here, we must burn all of Hezbollah’s strongholds, destroy them. War!”

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are members of Israel’s security cabinet but not of the war cabinet.

The violence, which has oscillated for months, escalated in recent days. Hezbollah announced on Tuesday it had launched a squadron of one-way attack drones at an Israeli military barracks for a second consecutive day, calling it a response to a deadly Israeli attack in Naqoura, Lebanon.

Sirens sounded in northern Israel, where rockets fired from Lebanon set off wildfires on Monday.

The Israeli military said a “suspicious aerial target” that crossed from Lebanon fell in the Mount Hermon area, with no injuries reported.

Israeli warplanes struck a member of Hezbollah in Naqoura, as well as two other locations in southern Lebanon. Israeli artillery struck five locations in the south, the Israeli military said.

Israeli strikes have killed about 300 members of Hezbollah since Oct. 7 and around 80 civilians, according to Reuters tallies of deaths announced by the group and medical and security sources. Attacks from Lebanon on Israel have killed 18 Israeli soldiers and 10 civilians, the Israeli military says.

On Monday, Hezbollah said it launched a squadron of drones against an Israeli target in response to Israel’s killing of a Hezbollah member. While Hezbollah has used drones in the conflict, it marked the first time it had declared launching a squadron of them.

(Reporting by Maya Gebeily and Laila Bassam in Beirut, and Dan Williams and Henriette Chacar in Jerusalem, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington;Writing by Tom Perry and Deepa BabingtonEditing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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