BEIRUT: Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri said Wednesday that Beirut sought no escalation in the face of Israeli military activity along Lebanon’s southern border, ostensibly targeting tunnels allegedly dug by Hezbollah.
In comments published by his office, Hariri added that Lebanon was seeking to maintain the calm in coordination with “all international and friendly parties concerned” despite the recent developments.
However, the premier-designate criticized the “continuous violations” by the Israelis of Lebanese airspace and territorial waters.
He dubbed these as “open and unacceptable violations.”
Hariri added that this was rejected by the Lebanese side at a tripartite meeting between representatives of Lebanon, Israel and UNIFIL, held earlier Wednesday.
Following that meeting, the Lebanese Army in a statement asked for “accurate information and coordinates of the places claimed by the Israeli enemy.”
“The Army also stresses that the enemy [Israel] did not carry out any [work] inside Lebanese territory,” the statement added.
Tuesday, an Israeli military spokesperson said tunnels had been detected crossing from Lebanon into northern Israel and that “Operation Northern Shield” was launched to thwart them. But as Israeli excavations near Lebanon’s southern border entered their second day Wednesday, the Lebanese Army dismissed Israel’s claims as “mere allegations.”
While Hezbollah has not yet commented on either the Israeli claims or the ongoing excavations, Speaker Nabih Berri, a key Hezbollah ally, denied the allegations. “The Israeli claims are not based on any true information or facts at all,” Berri said during his weekly meeting with lawmakers, according to a statement from his office.Berri went on to say that “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is besieged domestically, is attempting to do such things to cover up the internal Israeli situation.”
The speaker also touched on the tripartite meeting, saying that Israeli officials had not disclosed any information about the tunnels or their location coordinates.
During the meeting, however, it was decided that the U.N. peacekeeping mission would dispatch a “technical team” to Israel Thursday to look into the Israeli claims, a UNIFIL statement said.
UNIFIL Commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col, who chaired the meeting, underscored the “importance of ensuring that UNIFIL has full access to all locations along the Blue Line,” which demarcates Lebanon’s southern border with Israel. He also appealed for their support in de-escalating the “high level of rhetoric.”
“The meeting ... provided a forum to present and discuss issues related to the ongoing [Israeli army] activities to ensure that the overall calm prevails in the weeks ahead,” the statement said.
Del Col also called on both sides to refrain from any unilateral action that could affect the situation, adding that the peacekeeping mission will continue to support the efforts to defuse tension in 2019.
“All sides should be aware of the potential for a relatively minor incident to rapidly escalate into something more serious with unintended consequences,” he said.
Israel is excavating in at least three spots along the Israeli side of the borderline. Preparations started Wednesday at noon for excavations facing Lebanon’s Marwahine.
Security sources told The Daily Star that an Israeli force had placed sensors near Mais al-Jabal to detect underground movement, and that a parachute with a camera attached had also been released on the Israeli side near the Lebanese village.
According to the state-run National News Agency, the Israelis placed another camera at dawn on the cement border wall near the border town Kfar Kila’s main road. Despite these developments, residents of Lebanese border towns went about their day as usual. Schools remained open, and people went to work as normal.
Earlier in the day, Israeli army spokesman Avichay Adraee shared satellite pictures on Twitter of a cement block factory that he claimed had been “turned into the starting point of the Hezbollah attack tunnel.”
“The building was used until 2014 as a [cement] block factory. It falls within meters from [where] UNIFIL conducts its patrols. The tunnel starts at the [factory] building and crosses the Blue Line and stretches 40 meters into Israel,” Adraee alleged.
Lebanon’s Foreign Ministry has so far refrained from responding directly to developments along the border. But in an apparent indirect response, caretaker Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil said what some might interpret as the preparation of a complaint to the United Nations Security Council regarding the Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty. Israel averages 150 total violations a month of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701.
The resolution, which originally ended the 2006 war with Israel, called for the cessation of all hostilities between the two countries, which was never enacted. UNIFIL has protested repeated aggressions to both Israeli authorities and the Security Council.
International reactions to the controversy, meanwhile, were mixed.
United States President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, Tuesday expressed support for “Israel’s efforts to defend its sovereignty.” Bolton made no mention, however, of Israel’s almost daily violations of Lebanon’s sovereignty in recent years. Russia, by contrast, Wednesday called on Israel to uphold the Resolution 1701.
“We do not question Israel’s right to ensure its national security, including by preventing anyone from entering the country,” Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, said during a briefing, according to tweets from the ministry’s official account.
“At the same time, we hope that no actions taken to achieve this purpose will be in conflict with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701,” Zakharova said. Russian news agency Sputnik quoted Zakharova as saying that Russia hopes UNIFIL peacekeepers will prevent any breaches and “fulfill its monitoring mission.”
Meanwhile, even inside Israel, Operation Northern Shield faced criticism. Former Israeli Minister Tzipi Livni accused Netanyahu of overdramatizing Israel’s discovery of “Hezbollah tunnels” for political gain, telling public radio that “the incident must be kept in proportion.”
Netanyahu is seeking to hold his governing coalition together after last month’s resignation of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman over a controversial Gaza cease-fire, which left him clinging to a one-seat majority in Parliament. He has also faced mounting legal woes, with police Sunday recommending that he and his wife Sara be indicted for bribery, the third such recommendation against the premier in recent months.
Livni alleged that part of Netanyahu’s thinking was to deflect criticism from residents of southern Israel who say he has failed to quash the threat of cross-border rocket fire from militants in the besieged Gaza Strip.
“Therefore he made a defensive engineering event into a dramatic military operation,” she said.
“This was done from two reasons: Either the prime minister is himself panicking or he wants to sow panic to justify his actions, both in delaying elections and abandoning the residents of southern Israel.” – With AFP