Exclusive-A halt to Gaza fighting would trigger Lebanon ceasefire talks, PM says

By Thomson Reuters Feb 29, 2024 | 10:19 AM

By Laila Bassam and Maya Gebeily

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A halt to fighting in the Gaza Strip as early as next week would trigger indirect talks to end hostilities along Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister Najib Mikati said on Thursday.

In an interview with Reuters, Mikati said he was confident that the Iran-backed armed group Hezbollah would cease fire if Israel did the same, ending nearly five months of cross-border shelling and airstrikes.

Hezbollah is one of several Iran-aligned groups around the Middle East that have entered the fray since Oct. 7, when Hamas militants stormed Israel from the Gaza Strip, triggering a fierce Israeli land, air and sea offensive on Gaza.

Hezbollah, an ally of Hamas, has said its campaign aims to support the Palestinians under Israeli bombardment.

Mikati said a deal to halt military action in Gaza was “on the horizon” and could begin as early as next week.

“If we are able to reach a cessation of military operations in Gaza, then I believe that we will have ahead of us weeks packed with negotiations, so that we can reach what I have always called long-term stability in the south,” he said.

Mikati said he had met U.S. special envoy Amos Hochstein in February in Munich, who was “preparing for visits to Lebanon soon”.

Hochstein, who was last in Beirut in mid-January, mediated a rare deal in 2022 between Lebanon and Israel, with a nod of approval from Hezbollah, that ended their long-standing maritime border dispute. He has said he hopes to do the same for their land border.

When asked whether Hezbollah had signalled a willingness to move forward with talks, Mikati suggested that the “cooperation” shown by “all sides” to facilitate the maritime deal could be replicated for a land border deal.

“I am certain that the moment that Israel stops its violations against Lebanon, I am convinced that Hezbollah will not violate – or will not respond to something that did not happen,” he said.

Hezbollah itself indicated it was ready to halt its cross-border attacks if a Gaza ceasefire comes into force.

“The war in the south is linked to the aggression on Gaza on the one hand, and to securing means of protection for our country on the other,” senior Hezbollah politician Hassan Fadlallah said.

“When the (Israeli) occupation halts its aggression on Gaza, this front stops, because it is a supportive front,” he said at an event to commemorate a Hezbollah field commander killed in an Israeli strike this week.

France has also been seeking to de-escalate with proposals including a withdrawal of Hezbollah’s elite fighters 10 km (6 miles) away from the border and talks to settle the course of the disputed frontier.

Mikati declined to specify what measures he believed Hezbollah was ready to take to maintain a ceasefire.

“The question can go to Hezbollah. I am speaking in the name of Lebanon and we are ready to execute 1701 in full,” he said, referring to the 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution that ended a month-long war that year between Hezbollah and Israel.

It calls for a halt to cross-border military activities, a withdrawal of non-state armed groups from southern Lebanon – in reference to Hezbollah and others – and an increased deployment of Lebanese army troops in the south.

Mikati said that to implement Resolution 1701, the army would need allied countries to help with everything from “fuel, to equipment to means of transportation to the barracks and even to weapons – everything the army needs”.

The Lebanese army, like the rest of the state, has been in severe financial crisis since an economic meltdown nearly five years ago.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Maya Gebeily; Editing by Tom Perry and Kevin Liffey)