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Lebanon fears intensification of Israel’s Hezbollah offensive

In an interview with the BBC, Abdallah Bou Habib said it was unlikely Israeli forces would cross into Lebanon but that there could be more fierce air strikes.


Lebanon is worried that Israel might intensify its offensive against the Lebanon-based Shia militant group Hezbollah, the country’s foreign minister has said, as the conflict between the two sides escalates along the border.

In an interview with the BBC, Abdallah Bou Habib said it was unlikely Israeli forces would cross into Lebanon but that there could be more fierce air strikes.

Israel and Hezbollah have exchanged near-daily strikes and counter-strikes since October when Hezbollah launched rockets at Israel in support of the Palestinians in Gaza a day after the deadly Hamas attack on Israel.

The violence has killed civilians, Israeli soldiers and Hezbollah fighters and led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people on both sides of the border, raising fears of another major confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel, which fought a devastating month-long war in 2006.

“As a government, we’re concerned,” Mr Bou Habib said in the interview in Beirut.

“Ithere’s an escalation, it’ll be from the skies… I don’t think Israel will [carry out] a land invasion… Whatever they want to achieve from land, they can achieve from the skies, and they dominate the skies.”

About 60,000 people from northern Israel remain evacuated and Israel has reinforced military positions near the frontier, while repeatedly threatening to expand the offensive against Hezbollah if diplomacy fails to de-escalate the situation.

Last week, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned of a “hot summer” along the border, days after saying a war would mean “catastrophe” for Hezbollah and Lebanon.

It remains unclear, however, what an escalation of Israel’s campaign could involve, and whether the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) would be able to fight on two fronts simultaneously, as the war against Hamas in Gaza continues.

wider conflict would be damaging for Israel too. Hezbollah – Iranian-backed and long considered by Israel to be a much more formidable enemy than Hamas – has an arsenal that includes precision-guided missiles able to strike deep into Israeli territory.

“The [Israeli] minister of defence has been saying, ‘We’ll return Lebanon to the Stone Age‘ [in the event of a war with Hezbollah]. [But] we’re neighbours, no matter what, geographically, and I don’t think he wants a country in the Stone Age next to his. [Because] that means he’ll be in trouble as well,” Mr Bou Habib said.

“I think these words, a lot of [Western] ambassadors tell us, are for domestic consumption, more than for us.”

Mr Bou Habib’s comments came at the end of a particularly violent week on both sides of the border.

Israeli attacks killed at least seven people in southern Lebanon, including two Hezbollah fighters and a technician who had been fixing a phone tower, according to local authorities. In Israel, the IDF said Hezbollah attacks killed three of its soldiers in the north of the country.

Since October, Israeli strikes have killed more than 350 people in Lebanon, mostly fighters belonging to Hezbollah and allied groups but also more than 50 civilians. In Israel, attacks from Lebanon have killed more than 20 people, including at least a dozen soldiers.

Hezbollah says the attacks with rockets, anti-tank missiles and explosive drones are in support of Hamas, aimed at diverting Israeli troops from Gaza to the border with Lebanon. Both groups are considered terrorist organisations by the UK, the US and others, and are part of the so-called Axis of Resistance, an alliance of factions across the Middle East supported by Iran.

In southern Lebanon, a Hezbollah stronghold, villages are empty as an estimated 90,000 residents have fled. Houses and other buildings lie destroyed while agricultural fields have been burned by white phosphorus dropped by Israel, Mr Bou Habib said. Experts have warned that those strikes are likely to have a long-term impact on the environment, which could make the areas uninhabitable.

Until now, the attacks have been largely contained to areas along the Lebanon-Israel border, as Hezbollah has taken steps to avoid sparking an all-out conflict. Israeli strikes, however, have increasingly hit targets deep inside Lebanon, including the eastern city of Baalbek, another Hezbollah stronghold.

Lebanon’s government, which has limited influence over the group, has called for the full implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, to solve the current Israel-Hezbollah conflict. The text was approved to end the 2006 war, which started after Hezbollah killed eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapped two others in a cross-border attack.

The resolution includes the withdrawal of armed groups from southern Lebanon, between the Litani River and the Blue Line, the unofficial frontier with Israel. Both countries have accused each other of violations, while Lebanon says Israel still holds Lebanese territory after the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 – something Israel and the UN deny.

“As long as we have occupied land, and we have, we can’t stop the [Hezbollah] resistance. That’s the problem,” Mr Bou Habib said. “That’s why we want a lasting border [like] they have with Jordan and Egypt. It may not be accompanied by a peace treaty, but there will be peace on the borders.”

US envoy Amos Hochstein and France, which has historic ties with Lebanon, have led recent efforts to reduce tensions. Hezbollah has said any permanent deal can only be negotiated after the end of the Israel-Hamas war, but that it will observe in Lebanon any ceasefire in Gaza.


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