Lebanese PM accuses Israel of seeking to ‘change the rules of engagement’

Netanyahu said Israeli forces would continue to take action “to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in the region”.
Tuesday 28/07/2020
A UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) vehicle drives past a Hezbollah flag in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, July 28. (REUTERS)
A UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) vehicle drives past a Hezbollah flag in the southern Lebanese village of Khiam, near the border with Israel, July 28. (REUTERS)

BEIRUT--Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Tuesday Israel had violated his country’s sovereignty with a “dangerous military escalation” along the frontier on Monday and urged caution after a rise in border tensions.

“Israel has once again violated Lebanon’s sovereignty… in a dangerous military escalation,” Diab said, in his government’s first official response to Monday’s shelling.

On his part, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said his country would do “everything necessary” to defend itself, a day after saying Israeli forces had thwarted an attempt by Hezbollah to infiltrate across the frontier.

The Iran-backed Shia group denied this.

Israeli soldiers stand next to an Israeli mobile artillery unit placed in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, Tuesday, July 28. (AFP)
Israeli soldiers stand next to an Israeli mobile artillery unit placed in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, Tuesday, July 28. (AFP)

A witness in Lebanon counted dozens of Israeli shells hitting the disputed Shebaa Farms area on Monday. No casualties were reported on either side of the frontier.

“I call for caution in coming days because I fear the situation will deteriorate in light of heightened tensions on our border,” Diab said on Twitter.

Israeli forces have been on alert along the border in anticipation of Hezbollah retaliation for the killing of one of its members a week ago in an alleged Israeli attack on the edge of the Syrian capital Damascus.

Visiting Israel’s northern military headquarters on Tuesday, Netanyahu said Israeli forces would continue to take action “to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in the region”.

His comments suggested that attacks in Syria, where Hezbollah fighters are deployed to support President Bashar al-Assad, would continue.

“We will do everything necessary to defend ourselves and I suggest to Hezbollah that it take that simple fact into account. Israel is prepared for any scenario,” Netanyahu’s office quoted him as saying.

Israel sees the presence of Hezbollah and Iran in Syria as a strategic threat, and has mounted raids on Iranian-linked targets there.

Soon after the incident on Monday, United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL said it had opened an investigation into the incident.

Diab on Tuesday accused Israel of trying to “change the rules of engagement,” that have existed between the two countries since the end of a month-long 2006 war — the last direct conflict between the two states.

He also said that Lebanon rejects a push by Israel to alter the mandate of UNIFIL before it expires late next month.

“There is an attempt to pressure Lebanon by threatening to reduce the number of UNIFIL forces if the mission’s mandate is not changed,” Diab said.

Lebanon map

“Lebanon refuses to amend the tasks of UNIFIL.”

In early May, the US ambassador to the UN, Kelly Craft, called on the world body to “pursue serious change to empower UNIFIL or realign its staffing and resources,” because the mission was being “prevented from fulfilling its mandate.”

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah swiftly rejected the proposal which he said was an Israeli demand.

Commenting on Monday’s events, President Michel Aoun said it threatened stability in south Lebanon weeks ahead of UNIFIL’s mandate renewal.

The latest border incident follows a July 20 Israeli missile attack on Syrian government and allied positions south of Damascus that killed five people.

Hezbollah, whose fighters back Damascus in the nine-year-old Syrian civil war, said one of its own was among the dead.

Since 2011, Israel has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria, targeting government troops and allied Iranian and Hezbollah forces with the stated aim of ending Iran’s military presence in Syria.