French Foreign Minister in Beirut as violence between Israel and Hezbollah intensifies

Stephane Sejourne's second visit to Lebanon comes amid escalating tension on the border

Stephane Sejourne returns to Lebanon. AFP
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The French Foreign Minister is set to visit Lebanon on Saturday as violence between Israel and Hezbollah along the border intensifies.

This is Stephane Sejourne's second visit in the region since February, as part of a western diplomatic push to de-escalate tension on the frontier.

It comes a week after French President Emmanuel Macron's meeting with Lebanon's Prime Minister Najib Mikati and army chief Joseph Aoun in Paris.

“There is renewed momentum for diplomacy on the Lebanese front as the focus has now shifted away from the Iran-Israel escalation,” a western diplomatic source told The National.

Iran's unprecedented attack on Israeli soil, in retaliation for a deadly attack on the Iran consulate in Damascus, had sparked fears of regional escalation of the Gaza war.

Though Israel's measured retaliation, to which Iran said it has no plans to respond, has soothed fears of a conflagration, tension continues to rise on the Lebanese border.

Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran and allied with Hamas, has escalated its attacks. This month alone saw the highest Israeli casualties reported in a single attack as well as Hezbollah's deepest strike into Israel.

“There is a surge in violence on the Israel- Lebanese front the past 10 days,” the diplomatic source said.

Israel has set a deadline of September for tens of thousands of evacuees to return safely to their homes near the northern border, as it is currently impossible due to Hezbollah, a much stronger militia than Hamas, holding positions a few metres away on the other side of the border.

“Such a deadline means there's a risk of war in the summer if a diplomatic solution is not found.”

Israel has repeatedly threatened a full-scale war if Hezbollah does not move its forces away from the border.

Mr Sejourne is set to meet Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Mr Mikati and Mr Aoun.

French proposal

France in February presented to Lebanese authorities the first written proposal to end border hostilities. The US is also leading a separate initiative spearhead by its envoy Amos Hochstein, who mediated a maritime deal between the two countries.

France is a former colonial power that has maintained a strong influence over the small Mediterranean country.

The plan proposes the withdrawal of certain Hezbollah elements along the border to facilitate the safe return of displaced Israelis.

In exchange, Israel would cease air and artillery strikes within Lebanon, and, ultimately, halt its flights over Lebanese territory.

The Lebanese Armed Forces would be deployed to the area to ensure the creation and maintenance of a buffer zone.

Lebanon and Israel would then resume negotiations on delimiting the 13 disputed points along the border.

“The main lines remain unchanged, only details are being discussed,” the diplomatic source said.

Hezbollah has repeatedly said that there will be no talks to end border hostilities without a ceasefire in Gaza. Diplomatic sources suggest that the French initiative in Lebanon is only intended to lay the groundwork for negotiations once a ceasefire is reached.

Peace talks are at a complete standstill as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has threatened to soon launch an offensive into Rafah, the southern Gazan city where more than one million displaced Palestinians are estimated to be sheltering.

Hezbollah opened a front on the Israel-Lebanon border to divert Israel's military capabilities away from its operations in Gaza on October 8. Since then, at least 382 people have been killed in Lebanon, including dozens of civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Israel says 11 soldiers and nine civilians have been killed on its side of the border.

Updated: April 27, 2024, 9:11 AM