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Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati has made a surprise visit to southern Lebanon, two weeks since fatal clashes erupted at the Israeli border following Hamas's unprecedented attack on October 7.
Dozens, including Reuters videographer Issam Abdallah, have been killed in clashes between Israel and Hezbollah, the powerful Lebanese militia, with thousands from affected border villages having been displaced amid concerns that the Israel-Gaza conflict could spark a second front.
“We came to our beloved south, which is paying today, as it has always paid, the tax of defending the entire territory of the nation against a usurping entity which knows no mercy, to affirm Lebanon’s respect, this peace-loving country, for all resolutions of international legitimacy,” Mr Mikati said.
He started his visit early on Tuesday morning at a Lebanese army barracks where he met Commander Joseph Aoun to express his “deep appreciation for the army's sacrifices in the defence of Lebanon”.
Cmdr Aoun said “defending Lebanon is a natural and legitimate duty of the army in the face of the dangers that threaten it, most notably the Israeli enemy”.
Mr Mikati then met UN Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) Maj Gen Aroldo Lazaro in Naqoura city, where he praised “Unifil’s role in maintaining stability in the south in full co-operation and co-ordination with the army”.
His visit came amid growing criticism of the Lebanese government's delayed acknowledgement of the escalation in the southern region, as the country suffers from one of the worst financial crises in modern history.
The cabinet eventually convened after five days of silence following the onset of Israel-Gaza war to condemn the “criminal acts committed by the Zionist enemy in Gaza”, while stressing that Lebanon should not be dragged into the conflict.
'Diplomatic and domestic efforts'
Mr Mikati has said the caretaker government was “actively engaging in diplomatic and domestic efforts to halt Israeli attacks in southern Lebanon and prevent the Gaza conflict from extending into Lebanon”.
“I understand the feelings of fear and anxiety that afflict the Lebanese as a result of what is happening, along with the calls made by a number of embassies to their nationals to leave Lebanon.
"I will not hesitate to do everything in my power to protect the country."
Over the past few days, a number of countries, including the US, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Belgium and Germany, have issued travel advisories to their citizens, urging them to leave Lebanon immediately or reconsider travel plans to the country.
The cabinet has examined a 231-page emergency plan designed to prepare for a potential war, involving collaboration between security agencies, NGOs and international organisations across sectors such as health care, telecoms and infrastructure.
Yet many Lebanese are doubting the state's ability to handle another potential crisis, while dealing with an unprecedented leadership vacuum, without a fully functional government and president.
They also question the capabilities of the army, hamstrung by four years of economic crisis, to withstand a broader conflict with Israel.
Hassan Nasrallah's silence
For many, the real decision-maker is Hezbollah – along with its ally Iran – and its position on whether to join the conflict in case of a ground invasion by Israel.
A “miscalculation” by Hezbollah or Israel could also disrupt the informal rules of engagement that currently govern the responses between those two adversaries, said Andrea Tenenti, a long-serving spokesman for Unifil in an interview with The National.
“If Hezbollah decides to enter the war ... it will make the mistake of its life,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned.
“We will cripple it with a force it cannot even imagine and the consequences for it and the Lebanese state are devastating."
Officially, Hezbollah has stressed its support for Hamas and offered assistance to the Palestinian militant group. However, Hassan Nasrallah, its leader, has not issued a public statement regarding Hezbollah and the Israel-Gaza conflict.
Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah MP, said Mr Nasrallah was “following the course of this confrontation here in Lebanon and what is happening in Gaza, hour by hour and moment by moment”.
He said his “failure to appear in the media to address public opinion is part of his management of this battle and it confuses the enemy as well”.