Defense chief says Israel doesn’t want war but warns Hezbollah; cites progress on resolving weapons rift with US

WASHINGTON: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on a visit to Washington that his country does not want war in Lebanon but is ready to inflict “massive damage” on Hezbollah if diplomacy fails.

“We don’t want war, but we are preparing for any scenario,” Gallant told reporters during the visit, which ended Wednesday. “Hezbollah knows very well that if a war breaks out, we can do a lot of damage to Lebanon,” he said.

Tensions have risen since the October 7 attack by Hamas that triggered Israel’s merciless retaliatory campaign in Gaza, with tensions and increasing clashes on the border between Israel and the Iran-backed militia.

Gallant said Israel had killed more than 400 Hezbollah “terrorists” in recent months.

An Israeli military post damaged by Hezbollah fighters is seen on the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, atop Mount Hermon, where the border between Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet. (AP photo)

Israel’s defense minister was in Washington for three days, meeting with officials in an effort to quietly resolve a standoff over US arms shipments, in tacit contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s more confrontational approach.

“During the meetings, we made significant progress, cleared the roadblocks, and managed to address the bottlenecks,” Gallant said after meeting with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.

Gallant said progress had been made on “a variety of issues,” including “the topic of force buildup and the supply of munitions that we need to get to the State of Israel.”

“I want to thank the United States government and the American public for their steadfast support of the State of Israel,” he said.

In recent days, Netanyahu has publicly accused the Biden administration of slowing arms shipments to Israel, which has been at war in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas.

US officials have denied the allegations and expressed dismay, months ahead of an election in which Biden’s support for Israel has become a liability and the left wing of his Democratic Party has been outraged by the high death toll of Palestinian civilians.

The United States froze a shipment containing 2,000 pounds of bombs in early May, and Biden warned of further freezes as he urged Israel not to launch a wide-scale military attack on Rafah, the southern Gaza city of more than a million displaced Palestinians. volt. sought refuge.

The United States has sent more than $6.5 billion in weapons to Israel since Oct. 7, and nearly $3 billion in May, according to a senior administration official.

“This is a huge, huge undertaking and nothing is on hold except for one shipment,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The official blamed the split on misunderstandings in the “complex” US bureaucratic process. He said Gallant’s team and US experts went through “every single case”.

“There’s been real progress and a mutual understanding of where things stand, that we’re prioritizing certain issues over others to make sure we’re moving in a way that meets the needs of the Israelis,” he said.

A Lebanese civil defense examines the scene of an Israeli airstrike in the southern village of Khiam, near the Lebanese border with northern Israel, on June 26, 2024. (AFP)

Biden — whose approach to Israel has been criticized by both progressives and the right — has shied away from curbing arms shipments after Israel carried out what U.S. officials described as a relatively targeted operation in Rafah.

Netanyahu and Gallant said the most intense phase of the fighting was over, with Israel pushing forces toward the Lebanese border after increasing clashes with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militant group.

The US official said Washington was still in “fairly intense discussions” with Israel, Lebanon and other actors and believed neither side was seeking “significant escalation”.

Gallant, who met twice in Washington with Amos Hochstein, the US liaison between Israel and Lebanon, reassured him that his country was trying to avoid an all-out war with the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

“We don’t want war, but we are preparing for any scenario,” Gallant told reporters.

American officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, expressed hope that the ceasefire in Gaza could also lead to a reduction in tensions with Lebanon.

On May 31, Biden laid out a plan for a temporary ceasefire and the release of the hostages, but Hamas returned with more demands.

Despite criticism of the proposal from some of Netanyahu’s far-right allies, Gallant said, “We are all committed to the president’s deal and strongly support it.”

“Hamas must accept or suffer the consequences,” he said.

The war in Gaza began with Hamas’ attack on southern Israel on October 7, as a result of which 1,195 people, mostly civilians, lost their lives, according to an AFP compilation based on Israeli data.

The militants also seized about 250 hostages, of whom 116 remained in Gaza, although the army said 42 were dead.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 37,718 people, also mostly civilians, according to data from the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.

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