US envoy Amos Hochstein arrives in Beirut in bid to ease Lebanon-Israel border tensions

Adviser to President Joe Biden calls for 'temporary compromise' as he meets Lebanese PM

US special envoy Amos Hochstein, left, meets Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati in Beirut. AP Photo
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Senior US envoy Amos Hochstein arrived in the Lebanese capital Beirut on Thursday amid heightened tensions over cross-border clashes between Hezbollah and Israel in southern Lebanon.

In a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Mr Hochstein called for a “temporary compromise” to ease tensions “even if it is not possible to reach a final solution agreement at the present time.”

"I firmly believe that the people of Lebanon do not want to see an escalation of the current crisis to a further conflict," Mr Hochstein said after meeting with parliament speaker Nabih Berri.

"We need to find a diplomatic solution that will allow for the Lebanese people to return to their homes in South Lebanon and to go back to their normal lives, as the people of Israel need to be able to return to their homes in their north, to be able to live with security."

Asked if there was a willingness from Israel to negotiate, particularly after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said there would be no negotiation without a ceasefire in Gaza, Mr Hochstein said "there is a narrow window, but that they prefer a diplomatic solution".

Mr Mikati said the priority must be a ceasefire in Gaza, and an end to Israeli attacks on southern Lebanon and violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

“We want peace and stability through adherence to international resolutions,” Mr Mikati said.

Mr Hochstein would explore efforts for a ceasefire, a US official said before the meeting, and would also discuss the demarcation of Lebanon and Israel's contested land border.

There are believed to be 13 contested points, as well as the occupied Shebaa Farms.

Lebanese armed group Hezbollah says its attacks are a response to Israel's war in Gaza, the Palestinian enclave ruled by its ally Hamas. But its leader Hassan Nasrallah has also hinted that the fighting represents an opportunity for Lebanon to reclaim lands that it considers part of its territory.

The US and French diplomacies have recently multiplied “exchanges between Hezbollah and Israel”, a western diplomat told The National.

“There is some progress under way; Hezbollah is sending signals of openness and is not escalating its attacks despite increasing Israeli pressure,” the source said.

The deal currently being negotiated “goes beyond the issue of the contested land border”, the diplomat added.

It also includes “a reduction of Hezbollah's presence at the Israel-Lebanon border”, as requested by Israel, which would limit the group's capacity to threaten northern Israel and facilitate the return of the thousands of residents displaced from the border areas.

Israel has made it clear that it intends to push Hezbollah away from the border, “either through diplomacy or force”, according to its Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.

The deal would also include a strengthening of the Lebanese Armed Forces, which could be deployed in a potential buffer zone.

Challenges ahead

The negotiations have only just started and are already facing significant obstacles.

Israel has demanded the removal of Hezbollah's Radwan force, believed to number about 2,500 fighters, north of the Litani River, which the group has rejected.

Lebanese and Hezbollah officials have said there can be no negotiations until there is a ceasefire in Gaza, where more than 23,300 people have been killed in Israel's response to the October 7 Hamas attacks, which killed about 1,100 people.

On Thursday, Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad, in a message to the US, underlined that there would be no peace in southern Lebanon until Israel ended its brutal war on Gaza.

He was speaking at the funeral of a Hezbollah fighter.

On Wednesday Lebanon filed a complaint to the UN over Israel’s “hostilities”, the third time Beirut has done so since October 7. Lebanon accused Israel of violating UNSC Resolution 1701, which was introduced in 2006 in a bid to end the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah.

In the complaint, the Lebanese government said Israel had repeatedly infringed on Lebanon’s territory and sovereignty. Beirut said Israel had killed and injured civilians, including journalists, carried out white phosphorus attacks and destroyed around 50,000 olive trees.

Mr Hochstein, a senior adviser to US President Joe Biden, played a vital role in a 2022 deal that led to a demarcation of Israel and Lebanon's maritime border in the eastern Mediterranean.

Lebanon and Israel have no diplomatic relations and are technically at war.

While the Lebanese government has strongly condemned Israel's actions in Gaza, the occupied West Bank and southern Lebanon, the Lebanese Armed Forces have not responded.

The clashes between Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah, which began on October 8, are the most serious since the month-long war of 2006.

Their conflict has continued to expand in recent weeks. On January 2, Israel killed Hamas deputy Saleh Al Arouri in Beirut, the first time it has targeted the Lebanese capital since 2006.

This week it also killed Wissam Tawil, also known as Hajj Jawad, in a strike in southern Lebanon. A commander in the Radwan force, he was the most senior Hezbollah commander to be killed since October 8.

Hezbollah responded with a barrage of attacks on Israel's northern command, the group's deepest strike into Israel yet.

Updated: January 11, 2024, 3:15 PM