Israel-Lebanon front continues to heat up despite French mediation efforts

Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne meets top Lebanese officials in push for de-escalation

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, right, shows French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne a map of Israeli attacks on Lebanon during their meeting in Beirut on Sunday. EPA
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Cross-border fighting along the Lebanon-Israel front intensified on Sunday despite the arrival of France's Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne in Lebanon as part of a western diplomatic push to de-escalate the conflict.

Mr Sejourne, on his second visit to the region since February, said he would present proposals aimed at preventing war and easing tensions between Hezbollah and Israel to Lebanese officials.

“It is in no one's interest for the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel to expand,” Mr Sejourne said in Beirut after meetings with Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, caretaker Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib and army commander Gen Joseph Aoun on Sunday.

France is seeking to avert “a regional war in Lebanon”, he said. “We call on all parties to exercise restraint,” he added.

Earlier, following a visit to the headquarters of Unifil, the UN agency charged with keeping peace between Israel and Lebanon, Mr Sejourne said he was in Lebanon to “convey messages and propose initiatives to the authorities here to push this region towards stability and avoid the outbreak of war.”

But even as Mr Sejourne did the rounds in an attempt to broker peace – or at the least make diplomatic progress – fighting along the Lebanon-Israel frontier continued to escalate.

The powerful Lebanese Hezbollah group said it launched several attacks on Israeli territory on Sunday in retaliation for Israel’s attacks “on the steadfast southern villages and civilian homes” in Quzah, Markaba, and Serbin villages the previous day. At least nine people were wounded in the attack on Serbin, according to Lebanon’s National News Agency.

Hezbollah’s retaliation included rockets fired into the northern Israeli town of Meron and a series of drones and missiles launched at a military headquarters housing members of Israel’s 51st Battalion and the Golani Brigade in Manara.

“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.

There have been several unprecedented incidents between Israel and Iran in recent months that have drawn the enemy states closer to the brink of war. Iran's attack on Israeli soil, in response to Israel's deadly attack on the Iran consulate in Damascus, drew fears of a larger regional conflagration.

Though Israel's measured retaliation, to which Iran said it has no plans to respond, has soothed fears of a regional conflict for the time being, Israel has continued to threaten war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel has set a deadline of September for tens of thousands of evacuees to return safely to their homes near the northern border. That is currently impossible due to Hezbollah, a far stronger militia than its ally Hamas in Gaza, holding positions close to the border.

“Such a deadline means there's a risk of war in the summer if a diplomatic solution is not found,” the diplomatic source said on Friday, underscoring the urgency behind the French FM’s visit.

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.

Updated: April 28, 2024, 4:23 PM