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Israel killing of Hezbollah leader tests willingness to deal

Israel killing of Hezbollah leader tests willingness to deal

Fighting has escalated amid attempts to hostilities contained and possible border negotiations.

Reporting | Middle East

Reports Monday that Israel has killed a major Hezbollah commander comes after what is described as the militants' first act of retaliation against Israel following the assassination of senior Hamas official Saleh Al-Arouri in southern Beirut.

This development threatens to jeopardize U.S.-led efforts to calm the situation on the Lebanese-Israeli front, after Hezbollah's leadership appeared to signal a conditional willingness to engage in such a process

Reuters reported on Monday that an Israeli strike on south Lebanon killed Wissam al-Tawil a senior commander in Hezbollah's elite Radwan force.

Meanwhile, Hezbollah issued a statement Saturday saying it had launched a barrage of 62 rockets at an Israeli air surveillance base located at Mount Meron in Northern Israel. According to the statement the rocket attack struck the intended target in what it said was a preliminary response to the assassination of Al-Arouri, indicating that the score with Israel has yet to be settled over the killing of the Hamas official.

The Israeli side meanwhile confirmed that 40 rockets were launched towards the base, without further elaborating as to whether the rockets had reached their target. But according to Israeli daily Haaretz on Sunday night, the Israelis are now saying the operation inflicted heavy damage on its military facility.

The Israeli military meanwhile announced that it carried out a large-scale operation against Hezbollah targets in south Lebanon in response to the Shiite movement's operation. According to the Israeli army “significant assets” belonging to the movement were hit in the attacks.

These developments come after Hezbollah's secretary general Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed retaliation for Al-Arouri’s assassination, which marked the first Israeli military operation targeting the Lebanese capital since the 2006 war with Hezbollah.

Despite the soaring tensions however the situation remains tenuous but contained, at least for now.

“Hezbollah's operation is more than escalation and less than conflagration,” explained retired Lebanese army general Elias Hanna in an interview with RS. “For its part Israel is relying on America for munitions and firepower,” he added, stressing that Hezbollah was 10 times stronger than Hamas. “In case of full-blown war with Hezbollah, Israel would therefore need to rely even more on the U.S., which is against such a war,” he stated.

The latest round of escalation on the Lebanese-Israeli front has nevertheless sparked fears of a full-blown conflict. Addressing reporters in Beirut, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned of the risks of Lebanon becoming embroiled in a large-scale conflagration.

“It is absolutely necessary to avoid Lebanon being dragged into a regional conflict,” he underscored.

Borrell's agenda in Beirut also included talks with the head of Hezbollah's parliamentary bloc Mohammad Raad. This marked the first meeting between a senior Western official and a representative from the Shiite movement since the eruption of violence on the Lebanese-Israeli front on October 8.

It comes as the Biden administration is intensifying its efforts to reach a land demarcation deal between Lebanon and Israel. Washington's push for launching talks over a potential deal stems from its fears of a full-blown war on the Lebanese-Israeli front.

President Joe Biden's special advisor for energy and infrastructure Amos Hochstein is spearheading these efforts. Hochstein, who successfully mediated the maritime border deal reached between Lebanon and Israel in 2022, recently visited Israel to discuss the situation on the Lebanese-Israeli front and a possible land border agreement.

Nasrallah did not rule out his party’s readiness to engage in U.S.-sponsored talks over such a deal, emphasizing, however, that this cannot take place before a permanent ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

“Any talks, negotiation or dialogue will only take place or achieve a result after halting the aggression against Gaza,” declared Nasrallah in his Friday address.

Hezbollah’s leader also appeared to lay down his conditions for a potential deal. They not only included Israel’s withdrawal from what Lebanon says is occupied territories in the villages of the Shebaa farms and Ghajjar, but also an end to all Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty.

"We stand before a historic opportunity to liberate every inch of Lebanese territory and to prevent the enemy from violating Lebanese sovereignty on land, in the air and at sea,” he asserted.

Nasrallah’s statements echo what Hezbollah officials privately say about the movement not being opposed in principle to the idea of talks or negotiations over the border.

“Declaring that there will be no talks pertaining to this issue prior to a ceasefire in Gaza indicates that Hezbollah is open in principle to such talks,” according to one Hezbollah official who spoke to RS on condition of anonymity.

RS can also reveal that officials from the Shiite party have stated in closed-door meetings with European diplomats that the U.S.-brokered maritime deal between Lebanon and Israel could facilitate talks over a possible land agreement. Importantly, these statements suggest that Hezbollah remains ready to engage in U.S.-led mediation efforts despite the Biden administration's virtually unconditional support for Israel in the current conflict in Gaza.

Hezbollah’s conditional readiness to engage in such a process under U.S. auspices, and its continued reluctance to take action that would initiate all-out war, provide a strong impetus for the Biden administration to pressure Israel into agreeing to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, not least given Washington’s stated goal of preventing a major flare-up on the Lebanese-Israeli front.

Full-scale conflict on this front would undermine U.S. interests in Lebanon, which remains one of the region's most pivotal countries and the gateway of the West to the Middle East.

Despite its close ties with Israel, Washington continues to wield significant influence in Lebanon. The Lebanese army, which is the country’s most respected institution, is one of the world’s largest recipients of American military aid. Army officers and soldiers also frequently travel to the United States as part of their training programs. Washington’s success in brokering the maritime border deal further cemented its role as a critical player in Lebanon, particularly given that the country technically remains in a state of war with Israel.

By failing to push for a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, on the other hand, the U.S. runs a real risk of war on the Lebanese-Israeli front. This owes in no small part to a “real men go to Beirut '' mindset that appears to be prevalent amongst some members of the Israeli political and military elite. Just as U.S. neoconservatives adopted the slogan “real men go to Tehran" after the U.S. invaded Iraq and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, so do some of the more radical Israeli officials appear to be itching for war with Hezbollah.

The Washington Post has also revealed that U.S. officials are increasingly concerned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may resort to escalation on the Lebanese front for domestic political considerations. Regardless of how such a war would play out, it will be seen by many, particularly across the Arab world, as backed and enabled by Washington.

However, contrary to the situation in 2006 when the Israelis last attacked the Lebanese capital, the world has returned to an era of great power competition with nations like China and Russia seeking to enhance their role in the Middle East. Both Beijing and Moscow are challenging U.S. influence in the region, with the former successfully mediating the resumption of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the latter intervening militarily on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad. China and Russia’s refraining from adopting an anti-Hamas stance in the conflict in Gaza is another indicator of their intent to compete with the United States in the region.

An all-out war on the Lebanese-Israeli front will only serve to undermine U.S. influence in Lebanon in ways that can only benefit China and Russia. Both countries would likely be tempted to expand their influence in Lebanon given its geopolitical importance. And it likely would add to the already formidable influence enjoyed by Iran, which backs Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Reporting | Middle East
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