France FM in Lebanon for talks on calming Israel border

AFP , Monday 18 Dec 2023

France's Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna on Monday urged restraint in meetings with senior officials in Beirut, seeking to de-escalate tensions along the Lebanon-Israel border amid near-daily exchanges of fire.

French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, gestures as she speaks during a press conference at the Pine Palace, which is the residence of the French ambassador, in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Dec. 18, 2023 AP


Since October 8, the day after the Israeli war on Gaza started, the frontier between Lebanon and Israel has seen escalating cross-border fire, mainly between the Israeli army and Hezbollah, which says it is acting in support of Palestinian resistance group Hamas.

Colonna met with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a key ally of powerful Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah, calling for responsibility and restraint a day after making similar appeals in meetings with Israeli officials.

As concern grows over the humanitarian situation in Gaza, Colonna announced a new shipment of 700 tonnes of aid to the war-ravaged Palestinian territory, half of which is set to depart from the French port of Havre on Wednesday.

"The other half will depart next week," she told a news conference, reiterating calls for "a ceasefire... as soon as possible".

The French top diplomat also discussed the situation on the ground with the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Major General Aroldo Lazaro.

The head of the UN peacekeeping mission told reporters ahead of his meeting with Colonna that the situation on the border was "tense" and "dangerous", as hostilities trigger fears of all-out conflict.

"We are trying to continue with our liaison and coordination role... in order to avoid miscalculations, misinterpretations that could be another trigger for escalation," Lazaro said.

Fears of a widening war have been growing, with other Iran-backed groups attacking US-led coalition forces in Iraq and Syria, and Yemen's Houthi rebels targeting shipping in the Red Sea.

France, which contributes some 700 troops to the UN force in south Lebanon, has condemned recent attacks on peacekeepers and their facilities.

'Diplomacy or force' 

In Israel on Sunday, Colonna called on all parties to "de-escalate" along the Lebanon-Israel border.

"If things were to spiral out of control, I don't think anyone would benefit," she said.

Gripped by political paralysis and a crushing four-year economic crisis, Lebanon can ill-afford another devastating conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, which last went to war in 2006.

A French diplomatic source, requesting anonymity, expressed concern that Beirut could underestimate Israel's determination to protect its borders after the shock of Hamas's October 7 offensive.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Sunday that Israel "has no intention to start another front on our northern border" and that France could play a "positive and significant role" in preventing war.

But he warned that ensuring Israel's security meant pushing Hezbollah "north of the Litani River", some 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the border.

"There are two ways to do that: either by diplomacy or by force," Cohen said.

'Not afraid' 

France maintains contacts with Hezbollah, unlike other Western governments.

On Sunday, senior Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammed Raad, whose son was killed in an Israeli bombing last month, said the group was "not afraid of (Israel's) intimidation or the slogans it puts out via international intermediaries to remove our people" from parts of south Lebanon.

Since the cross-border exchanges began in October, more than 130 people have been killed on the Lebanese side, including a Lebanese soldier and, three of journalists, according to an AFP tally.

On the Israeli side, four civilians and seven soldiers have been killed, authorities have said.

French diplomats say Israeli bombardments have been intensifying, adding to fears of a major escalation.

On Monday, Lebanon's official National News Agency reported that an Israeli strike hit a building opposite a Hezbollah fighter's funeral procession in south Lebanon without causing casualties.

The Israeli war on Gaza began with unprecedented offensive by the Palestinian resistance group on October 7, which killed 1,139 people, and saw some 240 more captured to Gaza, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

Since then, more than 19,400 people, 70 % of them women and children, have been killed in Israel's brutal air and ground campaign on the Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian health ministry latest figures.

In Beirut, Colonna said the objective of Israel's "military operations" was "that Hamas will not be able to repeat such acts".

But "we have reservations and differences in viewpoints" with Israel, she said. "We ask them to act in a different way, in a more surgical manner".

* This story was edited by Ahram Online.


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