US-brokered Israel-Lebanon border deal progressing despite being tied to Gaza ceasefire

Agreement includes achieving a cessation of hostilities and disputes over land border

US envoy Amos Hochstein arriving for a meeting with Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut on Monday. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Live updates: Follow the latest news on Israel-Gaza

An arrangement to start negotiations to end the border conflict between Lebanon and Israel is progressing despite fears of a large-scale war with Hezbollah, sources close to the talks in Beirut told The National on Thursday.

The deal is being mediated between US envoy Amos Hochstein and Lebanon's Speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri, who is the head of the Amal Movement close to Hezbollah. The US has no direct contact with Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist group.

The sources said that Iran-backed Hezbollah has given the “green light” for the negotiations, contingent upon a ceasefire in Gaza where its ally Hamas is fighting Israel. Hezbollah opened a front on the Israel-Lebanon border on October 8 to divert Israel's military capabilities away from its operations in Gaza.

The two main points of the deal are achieving a cessation of hostilities on the border, followed by resolving disputes over the contested land frontier, according to the sources. There are 13 disputed points along the Blue Line, the current UN-demarcated border between Lebanon and Israel.

Hezbollah does not oppose these points in principle, if a ceasefire is achieved in Gaza, said the sources. The armed group has publicly said it will not stop fighting on the Lebanon-Israel front before a Gaza ceasefire.

Mr Hochstein arrived in Lebanon on Monday, where he met officials including Mr Berri, before travelling to Israel in a quest for a resolution to the cross-border hostilities.

The sources said that a committee at the US Embassy has been tasked with “crafting the proposal, covering its security, economic, and political dimensions”.

Mr Hochstein has not so far revealed details of his long-awaited road map for de-escalation, based on the implementation of Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, on both sides of the border.

The resolution called for the withdrawal of Hezbollah north of the Litani River, which is 30km from the border, while barring Israel from conducting military operations in Lebanon.

“The parameters are well-known: strengthening the presence of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) in the southern part of the country, diminishing Hezbollah's capacity at the border in exchange for Israeli concession and border negotiations; these are the fundamentals. It's broad so there is room for negotiations,” a western diplomat told The National.

“But Mr Hochstein has not yet delved into that level of detail,” the diplomat said.

“But as long as there is no ceasefire in Gaza, everything will stay at a standstill.”

Gaza ceasefire talks ended in Cairo on Thursday with no breakthrough, but Hamas said they could resume at the weekend.

Lebanon's caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said on Tuesday that Mr Hochstein “has developed a proposal and put it on the table”.

“Speaker Berri is studying it, and a response will be provided. We also have questions and are awaiting responses from Mr Hochstein,” Mr Mikati said in a TV interview.

“An agreement for the Ramadan period will take place in Gaza, with reports suggesting a ceasefire before Ramadan. Here, negotiations will take place this month,” he said.

Mr Mikati said that he and Mr Berri would “contact Mr Hochstein within 48 hours, by phone” regarding his proposal.

A Hezbollah source declined to comment specifically on Mr Hochstein's visit, while stressing that “the door to negotiations will open after the ceasefire [in Gaza], not before”.

“We don’t discuss our conditions until there is a ceasefire; then we will see.

“We hope this war will end soon, realising two objectives: the interests of Lebanon and the defence of Gaza,” they added.

The US embassy, Hezbollah and Amal did not respond to requests for comment.

No 'final deadline'

After Mr Hochstein's visit, Lebanese media reported that Israel had set a March 15 deadline for a diplomatic deal, after which it would be prepared to escalate the border conflict into a war.

“This is not correct. There is no final deadline,” the western diplomat said.

Israeli media reported that the country's military also denied the March 15 deadline.

Israel has carried out attacks deeper inside Lebanon in recent weeks, to achieve its objective of pushing Hezbollah from the south using “diplomacy or force”.

Hezbollah has shown little interest in a full-blown war and has been trying to limit its escalation in the south.

Last week, military and security sources in both countries told The National that Israel has planned for a war in south Lebanon to remove Hezbollah from the border and the militant group was preparing to face “all scenarios”, including a ground invasion.

“We are no closer to a total war in Lebanon,” Naïm Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary general, said in a recent TV interview. “There is a 90 per cent chance that there will be no large-scale war in the country,” he said, but “Hezbollah is ready” if the 10 per cent risk of war prevails.

The escalation of the border conflict, with increasing civilian casualties, despite western diplomatic efforts, is raising fears of a broader escalation.

Peter Stano, EU Commission lead spokesman for foreign affairs and security policy, said: “We are particularly alarmed by the number of civilians either killed or injured and the destruction of civilian property and [are] urging both sides, the actors in Lebanon and the Israeli side, to show responsibility and restraint, to engage meaningfully in continuing diplomatic efforts for the sake of both Lebanese and Israeli civilian population.”

The border clashes since October have killed at least 303 people in Lebanon, mostly Hezbollah fighters but including 51 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and seven civilians have been killed.

Updated: March 08, 2024, 9:54 AM