Hezbollah a bigger threat to Israel than Hamas, France's UN envoy says

Cross-border exchanges of fire have increased in northern Israel and Hezbollah has struck an Israeli surveillance blimp

Hezbollah fighters take part in a parade in Baalbek, Lebanon, in May 2022. AFP
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A war between Hezbollah and Israel poses a significantly greater threat than Hamas, France’s ambassador to the UN told The National, as he warned of the risks of a full-scale regional spillover erupting along the country's northern border.

"Tensions between Hezbollah and Israel could have devastating effects on both sides, not just Israel," Nicolas de Riviere said.

He said France is working with Israeli and Lebanese authorities to try to prevent such an outcome, which would rapidly inflame tension across the Middle East.

“We are very concerned with the situation along the Blue Line in the northern part of Israel and southern Lebanon … the situation is very fragile,” Mr de Riviere said in an exclusive interview at UN headquarters in New York this week.

“It needs to stay under control … The impact of such a crisis would be huge.”

Hezbollah, which like Hamas is backed by Iran, has been engaging in almost daily cross-border exchanges of fire with Israeli forces since the Hamas-led attacks on October 7.

Lebanese authorities have little control over the militant group, which operates with impunity and controls much of southern Lebanon.

Hezbollah has further intensified its actions since Israel launched its incursion into Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip, over the past two weeks.

A Hezbollah drone this week struck an Israeli surveillance blimp. Intelligence analysts told The National that Hezbollah is seeking to blind northern Israel’s detection systems, potentially ahead of a more serious assault.

Hezbollah has repeatedly stated that its attacks against Israel will stop only if a ceasefire in Gaza is enacted.

The war in Gaza, now in its eighth month, has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, according to local authorities, and Israel's gradual invasion of the southern city of Rafah is putting hundreds of thousands of civilians at risk.

The US has paused one shipment of high-yield bombs over fears Israel would use them indiscriminately in Rafah, but has vowed to keep supplying its ally as it fights Hamas.

“The Geneva Conventions, the law of the war, doesn't prevent you from fighting fighters … and it doesn't prevent you from eradicating terrorists,” Mr de Riviere said.

“What is totally off limits is to launch a large-scale operation, to use indiscriminate bombings and to kill a large number of civilians, women and children … It's totally off limits. The sooner this war comes to an end, the better.”

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But the ambassador said an arms embargo on Israel would be unacceptable.

“Israel has to defend itself and we will never, ever negotiate about the security of Israel for obvious reasons,” he said, highlighting Iran’s attack on Israel last month in retaliation for an Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, which killed senior military commanders.

The October 7 attack saw about 1,200 people killed in Israel and more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas and other militants, according to Israeli officials. Three French citizens are still being held captive.

When questioned about the “day after” the war's end, Mr de Riviere said that as long as there is no Palestinian statehood, Israel's security will remain “fragile”.

Without addressing such fundamental aspirations, events like October 7 could recur, leading to continual conflict.

“We should all together make an effort to break this vicious circle,” he said.

The ambassador also criticised the approach of determining Palestine's future solely through negotiations involving Israel and other nations, stating that it “won't work”.

He further highlighted the risk of the Palestinian issue becoming a marginal concern in the normalisation process that envisions broad Israeli economic integration with Arab nations.

“We cannot continue with the same mistakes which have been made in the past. We need to encourage the parties, both of them, and to put pressure on them to negotiate to find a sustainable political solution.”

Discussing a post-conflict governance strategy in Gaza, Mr de Riviere underscored the necessity of reforming the “very weak” Palestinian Authority and putting in place a security arrangement for Gaza.

“We need to define the role of the Palestinian Authority, which Palestinian Authority, which Palestinian governance … role of the UN, what should be done in terms of reconstruction,” Mr De Riviere said.

When asked about Hamas's potential inclusion in any future political process, he responded: “I don't think this is possible.”

The UN General Assembly voted on May 10 to support Palestine's bid for full membership, with a resolution sponsored by the UAE on behalf of 22 Arab nations and co-sponsored by about 65 countries. The US, Israel and seven other members opposed the measure. France voted in favour.

Despite the conversation around Palestinian statehood gaining momentum in Europe, especially with Slovenia, Spain and Ireland moving towards formal recognition, France is not ready to officially recognise Palestine as a sovereign state.

“We need to make sure that it makes a real difference … we want probably something to be part of the process, of a solution, that would lead to a peace agreement,” he said.

“It's not just the one thing you announce one morning on TV.”

Updated: May 19, 2024, 11:52 AM