U.S. presses Lebanon to remove Hezbollah outpost in Israeli territory
The U.S. is pressing the Lebanese government and military to take steps to dismantle a Hezbollah outpost that was established several weeks ago in Israeli territory on the Israel-Lebanon border, four Israeli and U.S. officials told Axios.
Why it matters: Hezbollah has increasingly taken what Israel sees as provocative steps near the border, raising concerns of a possible escalation that could lead to a new armed conflict between Israel and the militant group along a border that has been mostly stable since the 2006 war.
Driving the news: According to a senior Israeli official, Hezbollah operatives set up a tent on April 8 in an area that is north of the border fence between Israel and Lebanon, but 30 meters (98 feet) south of the internationally recognized Blue Line in an area considered by the UN to be Israeli territory.
- The Israeli military realized the tent was in Israeli territory only several weeks later when Hezbollah added another tent, a water tank and a generator to the outpost, the Israeli official said.
- For several weeks, the IDF had quiet conversations with the UN peacekeeping mission, known as the UNIFIL, deployed along the border but the issue leaked to the Israeli press last week.
The Lebanese government in a letter addressed to the UN secretary-general and the members of the UN Security Council admitted the outpost was established in Israeli territory, but it tried to downplay the tent's significance and accused Israel of violating Lebanese sovereignty.
- “The media blows out of proportion minor issues such as the erection of a small tent in the Shabʻa Farms south of the Blue Line (which is currently being addressed) when the root of the problem is the ongoing violation by Israel of resolution 1701 (2006)," the Lebanese UN ambassador wrote in the letter — a copy of which was obtained by Axios.
- The next day, Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan sent his own letter, which included photos of the outpost and armed Hezbollah operatives in it.
- Erdan wrote in his letter, a copy of which was also obtained by Axios, that the Lebanese government "has the responsibility to ensure the removal of all Hezbollah's military outposts along the Blue Line … Israel will not accept any violation of its sovereignty and retains the right to take all necessary measures to protect its territory."
Behind the scenes: The Biden administration and the Israeli government were concerned that the outpost was the result of a miscalculation by the organization that could lead to an escalation, Israeli officials said.
- At Israel's request, State Department and Pentagon officials stressed to UNIFIL officials, the Lebanese government and the Lebanese armed forces that the Hezbollah outpost needed to be evacuated, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
- “Our goal is to move the outpost out of there. We prefer Hezbollah will do it themselves than to bomb it. We made that clear to the U.S. and they made that clear to people in Lebanon," a senior Israeli official told me.
What they're saying: A State Department spokesperson said: "We don’t have any comment on private U.S. diplomatic conversations that may or may not have taken place."
- Hezbollah hasn’t commented publicly on the issue. But al-Akhbar, a newspaper affiliated with Hezbollah, reported that the Shia militia refused to evacuate the outpost and told several interlocutors that the outpost is on Lebanese land that was occupied by Israel.
- The Lebanese Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.