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Hezbollah Rejects US Diplomacy While Wary of Expanded Conflict

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah addresses his supporters through a screen during a rally commemorating the annual Hezbollah Martyrs’ Day, in Beirut’s southern suburbs. Photo: Reuters/Aziz Taher

Iran-backed Hezbollah has rebuffed Washington’s initial ideas for cooling tit-for-tat fighting with neighbouring Israel, such as pulling its fighters further from the border, but remains open to US diplomacy to avoid a ruinous war, Lebanese officials said.

US envoy Amos Hochstein has been leading a diplomatic outreach to restore security at the Israel-Lebanon frontier as the wider region teeters dangerously towards a major escalation of the conflict ignited by the Gaza war.

Attacks by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis on shipping in the Red Sea, US strikes in response and fighting elsewhere in the Middle East have added urgency to the efforts.

Hezbollah is ready to listen,” a senior Lebanese official familiar with the group’s thinking said, while emphasising that the group saw the ideas presented by veteran negotiator Hochstein on a visit to Beirut last week as unrealistic.

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 contacts signals an aversion to a wider war, one of the Lebanese officials and a security source said, even after an Israeli strike reached Beirut on Jan. 2, killing a Hamas leader.

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 is not reached.

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

Branded a terrorist organisation by Washington, Hezbollah has not been directly involved in talks, three Lebanese officials and a European diplomat said. Instead, Hochstein’s ideas were passed on by Lebanese mediators, they said. Reuters consulted eleven Lebanese, US, Israeli and European officials for this story.

One suggestion floated last week was that border hostilities be scaled back in tandem with Israeli moves towards lower intensity operations in Gaza, the three Lebanese sources and a US official said.

Another suggestion is that Hezbollah keep its fighters at least 7 km (4 miles) from the border, two of the three Lebanese officials and an Israeli official said. The proposal was communicated to Hezbollah, the Lebanese officials said.

That could leave fighters much closer than Israel’s public demand of a 30 km (19 mile) withdrawal to Lebanon’s Litani River, as stipulated in a 2006 UN resolution.

However, Israel believes most anti-tank missiles fired from further than 7 km would not land on northern Israeli communities, according to the Israeli official, who was briefed on war cabinet discussions, but requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the conversations.

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.

Israel would also want to see Hezbollah‘s elite Radwan force kept north of the Litani and a United Nations peacekeeper force “beefed up,” the Israeli official said.

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 and the Lebanon government did not immediately respond to detailed requests for comment. The White House declined to comment on Reuters’ reporting.

Hezbollah has, however, signalled that once the Gaza war is over it could be open to Lebanon negotiating a mediated deal over disputed areas at the border, the three Lebanese officials said, a possibility alluded to by Hezbollah‘s leader in a speech 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 previously held fire during a 7-day Gaza truce in late November.

Israeli government spokesperson Eylon Levy, in response to a Reuters question at a media briefing on Wednesday, said there was “still a diplomatic window of opportunity,” to push Hezbollah away from the border.

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, in whose cabinet Hezbollah has ministers, has said Beirut was ready for talks on long-term border stability.

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

Hochstein was hopeful “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 spearhead of the Iran-aligned “Axis of Resistance”, Hezbollah was drawn into a battle it has said it did not expect when Palestinian ally Hamas stormed Israel on Oct. 7, triggering a conflict that has also spilled into the Red Sea, where US strikes have targeted Yemen’s Houthis over their attacks on shipping.

Hezbollah has said its campaign has aided Palestinians by stretching Israeli forces and driving tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes.

It has come at a cost, with around 140 Hezbollah fighters and at least 25 Lebanese civilians killed, as well as at least nine Israeli soldiers and a civilian. The intensity has been growing in recent weeks.

Hezbollah, founded by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, is the most powerful and influential of the groups Iran backs. It has played a big part in Tehran’s wider foreign policies.

Sources familiar with Hezbollah thinking have said it knows all-out war would be ruinous for Lebanon, a country already destabilised by years of financial and political crises, and where Hezbollah‘s vast arsenal has long been a point of contention. Experts say the cache includes more than 100,000 rockets.

Even as Iran-aligned fighters draw U.S. fire elsewhere in the region and Iran launches strikes in Syria and Iraq, Tehran would be loathe to see Hezbollah and Lebanon subjected to massive destruction, not least because it has previously had to foot the bill of reconstruction, said Mohanad Hage Ali, deputy director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, a think-tank based in Beirut.

Iran’s foreign minister on Wednesday said attacks against Israel and its interests by the “Axis of Resistance” will stop if the Gaza war ends.

Hage Ali said Hezbollah clearly wanted to avoid full-scale conflict. It did not want to be left in a situation where Israeli strikes continue or intensify in Lebanon after the Gaza war ends or is significantly scaled back, he said.

“A process in which it can engage, or support, the Lebanese state as it negotiates would provide the benefits of de-escalation,” he said.

The diplomacy faces significant complications, and many observers see a serious risk of an escalation in fighting. Israel has said its army will act if diplomacy cannot restore security to northern Israel.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said the group had heard “threats and inducements”.

The threat, Nasrallah said in a Jan. 15 speech, was the warning that Israel would move forces to its northern border as it shifts to the next phase of the Gaza war. Hezbollah was ready for war and would fight without “any limits, rules or boundaries”, he said.

But he has also alluded to diplomatic possibilities, saying in a Jan. 5 speech that once the Gaza war was over Lebanon had “a historic opportunity” to liberate land.

Those comments were widely interpreted as reflecting the possibility of a negotiated deal settling the status of disputed border areas.

Four Lebanese officials briefed on the matter said Hochstein has discussed ideas aimed at advancing such a deal, but he had not presented any draft proposals. The officials did not provide details of the ideas.

An Israeli official told Reuters Israel’s government has “relayed lots of demands,” without giving details. “One way or another, our 80,000 northern residents will be returning home,” the official said.

France has also been involved in de-escalation efforts. A source familiar with French thinking said Nasrallah’s public comments alluding to a possible border deal were “direct messages to the Americans and to the French”.

“He’s telling us: ‘the door is open’”.

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Amid Security Fears, Muslim Access to the Temple Mount During Ramadan Will Be Limited

Palestinians walk at the compound that houses Al-Aqsa Mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 21, 2021. Photo: REUTERS/Ammar Awad

i24 NewsAs the month of Ramadan approaches, concerns over security have prompted Israeli authorities to implement limitations on Muslim access to the Temple Mount site, and Al-Aqusa Mosque.

The decision, made in accordance with recommendations from the Minister of National Security Ben Gvir, comes amidst opposition from the Minister of Defense Gallant, Shin Bet, and the army.

The restrictions include a cap on the number of individuals permitted to enter the site, with additional sorting based on age. While the details regarding the authorization of Palestinians from East Jerusalem are pending, the implementation of security measures proposed by Itamar Ben Gvir, which would allow security forces to intervene in response to provocative behavior, was rejected.

Under the current plan, only Muslim pilgrims aged 60 or above with permits issued by the Shin Bet will be granted access to the Temple Mount. However, domestic intelligence agencies have expressed reservations, fearing that such restrictions could exacerbate tensions and fuel Hamas’s rhetoric about Israel’s intentions to seize the site and deny Muslims access.

This sentiment was echoed by Walid Al-Huashla, an Arab MP from the Ra’am party, who condemned the decision as dangerous and racist. Al-Huashla warned of the potential consequences of the measures, accusing Prime Minister Netanyahu of capitulating to provocateurs and exacerbating tensions in Jerusalem.

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Unopened Medicine Boxes Bearing Names of Israeli Hostages Found in Hospital Raid

Some of the drugs found at the hospital. Photo: IDF

i24 NewsThe Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Shin Bet forces executed a strategic mission at Nasser Hospital in Gaza, resulting in the arrest of hundreds of terrorists and the discovery of a cache of weapons hidden within the hospital premises.

Prior to entering the hospital complex, the forces engaged in intense battles, including face-to-face combat and repelling rocket fire from within the hospital compound.

The forces apprehended numerous terrorists and terror suspects who had sought refuge within the hospital including individuals linked to the October 7th massacre. These individuals were subsequently transferred to security forces for further investigation.

IDF releases footage of soldiers uncovering unopened boxes of medicine in Al-Nasser Hospital that were meant to be transferred to Israeli hostages – some of which should have been refrigerated but was found sitting out.

— i24NEWS English (@i24NEWS_EN) February 18, 2024

During the operation, a substantial quantity of weapons was seized, with some weapons concealed in a vehicle believed to have been used in previous terrorist attacks. Additionally, a vehicle belonging to Kibbutz Nir Oz, which had apparently been stolen, was recovered from the hospital vicinity.

IDF forces also discovered un-opened boxes of medicine bearing the names of Israeli hostages. The packages were found sealed and undistributed, raising concerns about the previous breached agreement in which Qatar would distribute medicine for the chronically ill hostages.

The medical assistance includes essential treatments such as inhalers for asthma patients, medications for diabetics, insulin injections, glucometers, medications for heart disease and blood pressure, as well as treatments for intestinal infections and thyroid gland imbalances.

During talks, Qatar had committed to providing verifiable proof to Israel that the medications will indeed reach the hostages. However the IDF finding the France-sent boxes with medicine, indicates the never reached the hostages.

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The Myth of British Exceptionalism

Britain’s former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reacts after the general election results of the Islington North constituency were announced at a counting center in Islington, London, Dec. 13, 2019. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay.

JNS.orgThat old image of the Jewish family with a packed suitcase at the ready in case they are compelled to suddenly leave their home has returned with a vengeance across Europe.

In France and Germany, home to sizable Jewish communities, the “Should we leave?” debate is raging in earnest. Both of these countries experienced record levels of antisemitic incidents in 2023, most of them occurring after the Hamas pogrom of Oct. 7 in southern Israel. Similar conversations are also being held in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Belgium and Spain—countries with tiny Jewish communities that are nevertheless enduring a painful rise in antisemitism.

What about Britain, though? It’s a pertinent question insofar as there has always been a “British exceptionalism” with regard to the continent. During World War II, the Nazis failed in their quest to conquer the British Isles, in contrast to the rest of Europe. After the defeat of Hitler, the British supported efforts to transform Europe into an economic and political community that eventually became the European Union, even joining it. Yet Britain was never fully at peace with its identity as a European state, and as is well known, the “Brexit” referendum of 2016 resulted in the country’s full-fledged withdrawal from the European Union.

When it comes to antisemitism, however, Britain is very much part of the European rule, not the exception. Again, that’s important because while the British don’t deny that antisemitism is present in their politics and culture, they don’t believe that it’s as venomous as its German or French variations. “It is generally admitted that antisemitism is on the increase, that it has been greatly exacerbated by the war, and that humane and enlightened people are not immune to it. It does not take violent forms (English people are almost invariably gentle and law-abiding),” wrote George Orwell in an essay, “Antisemitism in Britain,” penned towards the war’s close in April 1945.

At the same time, Orwell conceded that British antisemitism was “ill-natured enough, and in favorable circumstances, it could have political results.” To illustrate this point, he offered a selection of the antisemitic barbs that he had encountered over the previous year. “No, I’ve got no matches for you. I should try the lady down the street. She’s always got matches. One of the Chosen Race, you see,” a grumpy tobacconist informed him. “Well, no one could call me antisemitic, but I do think the way these Jews behave is too absolutely stinking. The way they push their way to the head of queues, and so on. They’re so abominably selfish. I think they’re responsible for a lot of what happens to them,” a “middle-class” woman said. Another woman, described by Orwell as an “intellectual,” refused to look at a book detailing the persecution of Jews in Germany on the grounds that “it will only make me hate them even more,” while a young man—a “near-Communist” in Orwell’s description—confessed that he had never made a secret of his loathing of Jews. “Mind you, I’m not antisemitic, of course,” he added.

I’d wager that were Orwell to tackle the same subject today, he would write a similar essay. The rhetoric he quotes echoes eerily in what we are hearing almost 80 years later, particularly the denial that recycling antisemitic tropes makes one an antisemite, as well as the digs against chosenness—because antisemites have never understood (or don’t want to understand) that Jewish “chosenness” is not about racial or ethnic superiority, but a duty to carry out a specific set of Divine commandments.

Last week, the Community Security Trust (CST), a voluntary security organization serving British Jews, issued its annual report on the state of antisemitism in Britain. The CST has been faithfully issuing these reports since 1984, and over the last few years, it has regularly registered new records for the number of offenses reported. 2023 was the worst year of all; there were a stomach-churning 4,103 incidents reported—an increase of 81% on the previous annual record in 2021, when 2,261 incidents were reported (largely due to that year’s conflict between Israel and Hamas for 11 days in May).

Instructively, the worst month in 2023 was October, in the days immediately following the rapes and other atrocities committed by Hamas terrorists on that black day. Oct. 11 was, in fact, the worst day, with 80 incidents reported. As the CST pointed out, “[T]he speed at which antisemites mobilized in the U.K. on and immediately after Oct. 7 suggests that, initially at least, this increase in anti-Jewish hate was a celebration of the Hamas attack on Israel, rather than anger at Israel’s military response in Gaza.”

Of course, the present situation in the United Kingdom differs from Orwell’s time for two main reasons. Firstly, in 1945, there was no Jewish state, and antisemitism revolved around cruder tropes invoking supposed Jewish rudeness, clannishness, financial power and so forth. (Even so, Britain was also one of the first Western countries to experience antisemitic rioting linked to the Zionist movement and Israel; in 1947, after two British officers in Mandatory Palestine were executed by the Irgun, or “Etzel,” resistance organization, violence targeting Jewish communities broke out across the United Kingdom, thereby establishing the principle that all Jews, everywhere, are to blame for the alleged evils of Zionism.)

Secondly, in 1945 Britain was still largely a white, Christian society. In the interim, it has become far more diverse and is now home to nearly 4 million Muslims who constitute 6.5 percent of the population. Since the late 1980s—when the Iranian regime issued a fatwa calling for the death of the Anglo-Indian author Salman Rushdie, alleged to have slandered Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses—what was once a relatively docile population has become politically animated, with the Palestinian cause pushed front and center.

In the four months that have passed since the Hamas atrocities, with weekly demonstrations in support of Hamas in London and other cities, Muslim voices have been disproportionately loud in the opprobrium being piled not just on Israel, but on those Britons—the country’s Jewish community—most closely associated with the Jewish state. Of course, this doesn’t apply to every Muslim, and many of the worst offenders are non-Muslims on the left. Indeed, the Oct. 7 massacres have enabled the return to politics of a particularly odious individual whom I had forlornly believed had been banished to the garbage can of history; George Galloway, an ally of Hamas and one-time acolyte of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is standing in the forthcoming parliamentary election in the northern English constituency of Rochdale for an outfit called the “Workers Party of Britain,” whose manifesto combines nationalism and socialism, but which would probably balk at the description “national socialist” in much the same way that some antisemites balk at the description “antisemitic.”

British Jews have weathered a great deal in recent years, especially the five years when the Labour Party, the main opposition, was led by the far-left Parliament member Jeremy Corbyn, who has since been turfed out of the party by his successor Sir Keir Starmer. Having survived that, the belief has spread that they can survive anything. But there’s another question to be asked: Is the effort worth it? Increasingly, and worryingly, growing numbers of British Jews are now answering “no.”

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