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Israel wants Hezbollah away from border, lawmaker says

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Israel wants Hezbollah away from border, lawmaker says
Reuters
Dan Williams and Tom Perry
December 13, 2023

By Dan Williams and Tom Perry

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) - An Israeli lawmaker said on Wednesday his government was seeking to use diplomatic channels to push Lebanon's Hezbollah fighters away from the border to avoid a war flaring there, although an official close to the group said such ideas were "unrealistic".

While battling Hamas in Gaza, Israel has also been trading fire since October on the Lebanese frontier with Hezbollah, which like the Palestinian group is backed by Iran.

The border violence is the worst since Israel and Hezbollah fought a month-long war in 2006. Israel has said Beirut would be turned "into Gaza" if Hezbollah starts another all-out war.

Yuli Edelstein, chairman of the Israeli parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, said Israel was determined to bring an end to Hezbollah's presence on the border with Israel.

"This is a goal, I think, that we are trying to reach, at this stage, through diplomatic channels," he told Reuters, saying the alternative could be another war.

"We are turning to every normal country, be it the United States, France, Arab countries - anyone who could somehow influence the situation and has some influence in Lebanon."

Sources familiar with Hezbollah's thinking have said their attacks so far have been designed to avoid an all-out conflict.

A senior Lebanese official told Reuters that U.S. and French officials had visited Beirut to discuss ideas to provide Israel with security assurances based on limiting Hezbollah's role on the border. He did not say when the visits took place.

The official, who is close to Hezbollah, said the ideas were "unrealistic". The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were confidential.

Hezbollah, which operates as a political party and has a heavily armed militia, is Lebanon's most powerful group.

In an apparent reference to Israeli border demands, senior Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah said on Wednesday that Israel was "in no position to determine the future of others".

"These are proposals that are not on (Hezbollah's) agenda or the country's agenda, and no one has spoken about them with us, and we are not prepared to even listen to them," he said in public remarks, without giving details of the proposals.

FRONT REMAINS 'OPEN'

Since border violence flared, citizens on both sides have fled their homes. In Israel, residents fear Hezbollah fighters could stage a raid similar to the cross-border rampage launched by Hamas fighters on Oct. 7 that sparked the Gaza war.

Hezbollah deputy leader Naim Qassem said on Tuesday the Lebanese front would "remain open all the while the aggression on Gaza continues".

Edelstein said Israel did not want to open a new front in the north, adding: "We will if it will be necessary, if they will attack us - Hezbollah forces will attack us - and then we will have no choice."

Israel's defence minister has referred to a U.N. Security Council resolution 1701 passed at the end of the 2006 war, which included saying no armed factions should be present between Lebanon's Litani River and the border. The river is several kilometres (miles) from the border.

French officials said Paris wanted to listen to both sides and push for the full application of the resolution.

Asked how far Hezbollah should be pushed back, Edelstein said: "I won't get into tactical details, but we are definitely talking about miles."

He also said it was unlikely Israeli forces would once again seek to occupy southern Lebanon, like they did for 18 years until withdrawing in 2000.

He said he thought there could be some kind of agreement, adding that the alternative was leaving Lebanon "in ruins". He said Hezbollah "will have to think twice before breaking these agreements, before challenging us on that."

(Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dan Williams and Tom Perry; Editing by Edmund Blair)

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