Escalation between Israel and Hezbollah puts pressure on Gaza cease-fire talks

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made it clear Wednesday that 'the only way' to stop the cross-border hostilities between his group and Israel was to negotiate an end to the fighting in Gaza.
Last Updated : 11 July 2024, 05:03 IST

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When intelligence chiefs of United States, Israel and Egypt went to Qatar on Wednesday for talks aimed at brokering a cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, there was more on the line than Israel's war against Hamas. The talks are being watched closely by Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon, and the question of whether a second full-blown war will erupt in Israel's north may also hang in the balance.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made it clear Wednesday that "the only way" to stop the cross-border hostilities between his group and Israel was to negotiate an end to the fighting in Gaza. Hezbollah and Hamas are both allied with Iran in what they call "the axis of resistance," a coalition that opposes Israel's right to exist.

"Hamas is negotiating on its own behalf and on behalf of the entire resistance axis, and what Hamas accepts, we accept," Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, who are backed by Iran, have traded fire since the war in Gaza began after Hamas led an attack on Israel on Oct. 7. About 150,000 people in northern Israel and southern Lebanon have fled their homes because of the fighting, and world leaders are worried that continued hostilities could quickly spiral into a full-fledged war that further destabilizes the already fraught region.

Nasrallah, in his speech, referred to these concerns, noting that "many delegations" from the international community have visited Lebanon to discuss defusing tensions: "We repeated the same words: If you want to stop the northern front, stop the fire in Gaza."

But the cease-fire talks have been halting, and the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah -- cross-border attacks with drones, rockets and airstrikes -- has escalated in recent weeks, heightening fears that a wider war may be imminent.

On Tuesday, two Israelis -- Noa and Nir Baranes, a married couple from Kibbutz Ortal in the northern Golan Heights -- were killed in a Hezbollah strike on their car that the Lebanese armed group said had targeted an Israeli military base in response to an earlier Israeli "assassination" of a Hezbollah figure in Syria. The civilian deaths put additional pressure on the Israeli government to address tensions with Hezbollah, even as the Israeli military keeps returning to parts of Gaza it had previously considered pacified to suppress a resurgence of Hamas fighters.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that its air force struck a "military site" in southern Lebanon after soldiers identified several Hezbollah operatives entering it, and that it also had targeted other Hezbollah sites nearby. Israeli government officials and military leaders have in recent weeks toured northern Israel and met with troops stationed there who were preparing for a potential escalation.

Israel has invaded Lebanon three times in the past 50 years, most recently in 2006, when the sides fought a monthlong war that killed more than 1,000 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and more than 150 in Israel, mostly soldiers.

Yoav Gallant, Israel's defense minister, has said that a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Hezbollah is preferable. But he has also emphasized, including in talks with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, in Washington late last month, that Israel is "determined to establish security" in the north and change "the reality on the ground."

Israeli security experts are concerned that a war against Hezbollah will be more intense -- and more likely to draw in other players -- than the fight against Hamas.

A new report from Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies warned that "Hezbollah has the military capabilities to conduct an exceedingly protracted war, probably lasting many months, and cause severe damage to Israel" and that it could turn into "a multi-front war against Iran and its other proxies."

The report, led by retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Meir Elran, a senior researcher at the institute, said "there is a growing sense of futility regarding the future of the northern border." It also noted that "public discourse has been heavily focused on the possibility of a comprehensive war with Hezbollah."

Comprehensive war is precisely what France, the United States and others have been hoping to prevent with diplomatic visits to the region. Whether efforts at de-escalating the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah can succeed may well depend on how the cease-fire talks in Qatar progress.

On Wednesday, the CIA director, the Mossad chief and the Egyptian intelligence head met in Qatar with the Qatari prime minister in an effort to find a peace formula both Israel and Hamas can agree on. (Egypt and Qatar have been relaying proposals to Hamas leaders.)

So far, however, Israel and Hamas disagree over a fundamental question: whether the cease-fire will be permanent or just a temporary pause to allow for an exchange of hostages taken from Israel for Palestinian prisoners.

The talks have been "progressing positively," said Majed al-Ansari, the spokesperson for Qatar's Foreign Ministry, before the latest gathering. But, he added, "We are by no means out of the woods."

Published 11 July 2024, 05:03 IST

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