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Hezbollah rejects US overtures to cool tensions with Israel, won't withdraw from border

Terror group claims it is open to US diplomacy to avoid war

Hussein, son of Wissam Tawil, a commander of Hezbollah's elite Radwan forces who, according to the group, was killed during an Israeli strike on south Lebanon, holds his picture at a memorial ceremony to mark one week since his killing, in Khirbet Silem, southern Lebanon, Jan. 14, 2024. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Iran-backed Hezbollah terror organization has rebuffed Washington's initial ideas for cooling down 'tit-for-tat' fighting with neighboring Israel, such as pulling its forces further from the border, but remains open to U.S. diplomacy to avoid a ruinous war, Lebanese officials said.

U.S. envoy Amos Hochstein has been leading a diplomatic outreach to restore security at the Israel-Lebanon border as the wider region teeters dangerously towards a major escalation of the conflict ignited by the war in Gaza initiated by the Hamas terror group on Oct 7.

Efforts have become more urgent as attacks on shipping vessels from the Houthis in Yemen – Iran's terror proxy – have increased, resulting in the U.S. responding with airstrikes and fighting elsewhere in the Middle East.

"Hezbollah is ready to listen," a senior Lebanese official familiar with the terror forces said. He emphasized that the group thinks the ideas that Hochstein presented during his visit to Beirut last week are unrealistic.

The pro-Hezbollah Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar wrote on Tuesday that Hochstein’s visit to Beirut was being interpreted in Lebanon as “the last warning before a major escalation.”

Hezbollah's position is that it will fire rockets at Israel until there is a full ceasefire in Gaza. Hezbollah's rejection of the proposals presented by Hochstein has not been previously reported.

Despite the rejection and Hezbollah's volleys of rockets in support of Gaza, the group's openness to diplomatic discussions signals an aversion to a wider war, one of the Lebanese officials and a security source said, even after an Israeli airstrike reached Beirut on Jan. 2, killing senior Hamas leader Saleh al-Arouri.

Israel has also said it wants to avoid war, but both sides say they are ready to fight if necessary. Israel warns it will respond more aggressively if a deal to make the border area safe for Israeli residents cannot be reached.

“I don’t know when the war in the north will happen, I can tell you that the likelihood of it happening in the coming months is much higher than it was in the past,” IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi said on Wednesday.

Such an escalation would open a major new phase in the regional conflict.

Branded a terrorist organization by Washington, Hezbollah has not been directly involved in talks, according to three Lebanese officials and a European diplomat said. Instead, Hochstein's ideas were passed to Lebanese mediators, they added.

Reuters consulted 11 Lebanese, U.S., Israeli and European officials for this story.

One suggestion floated last week was that border hostilities be scaled back in tandem with Israeli measures to lower the intensity of its operations in Gaza, the sources said.

Hezbollah was also presented with a proposal that its fighters move 7 km (4 miles) from the border, two of the three Lebanese officials said. That would leave fighters much closer than Israel's public demand of a 30 km (19 mile) withdrawal to the Litani River as stipulated in the 2006 UN Resolution 1701.

Hezbollah has dismissed both ideas as unrealistic, the Lebanese officials and the diplomat said. The group has long ruled out giving up weapons or withdrawing fighters, many of whom hail from the border region and melt into society at times of peace.

Other Israeli demands include the deployment of an additional 15,000 soldiers of the regular Lebanese army to the border area, some sources told the Financial Times.

Israel's Prime Minister's Office declined to comment on "reports of diplomatic discussions" in response to questions from Reuters for this story. Spokespeople for Hezbollah, the Lebanese government and The White House declined to comment on Reuters' reporting, as well.

Hezbollah has, however, signaled that once the war in Gaza is over it would be open to Lebanon negotiating a mediated deal over disputed areas at the border, the three Lebanese officials said, which was something a Hezbollah leader alluded to in a speech earlier this month.

"After the war in Gaza, we are ready to support Lebanese negotiators to turn the threat into opportunity," one senior Hezbollah official told Reuters, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He did not address specific proposals.

Hezbollah largely held its fire during a 7-day truce in Gaza in late November.

Israel's government spokesperson Eylon Levy said there was "still a diplomatic window of opportunity" to push Hezbollah away from the border, in response to a question posed by Reuters during a media briefing on Wednesday.

Hochstein has a track record of successful mediation between Lebanon and Israel. In 2022, he brokered a deal delineating the countries' disputed maritime boundary - an agreement sealed with Hezbollah's behind-the-scenes approval.

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which contains Hezbollah ministers, has said Beirut was ready for talks regarding long-term border stability.

During his Jan. 11 visit to Beirut, Hochstein met Mikati, the parliament speaker and army commander. At the time, he publicly stated that the United States, Israel and Lebanon all preferred a diplomatic solution.

Hochstein was hopeful that "all of us on both sides of the border" could reach a solution to allow Lebanon and Israel to live with guaranteed security, he told reporters.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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