Exclusive: Lebanon’s foreign minister says his country doesn’t want a war with Israel

In an exclusive interview in Beirut with The World’s Shirin Jaafari, Lebanon’s foreign minister says his country cannot afford an all-out war with Israel.

The World

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in the Middle East pushing for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip. He’s meeting with regional leaders for the eighth time since last October.

In addition to Gaza and the north of Israel, there’s another concern for the Biden White House that is not going away — the possibility of war erupting between Israel and Hezbollah.

The Shia militia has been firing rockets into Israel from their positions in southern Lebanon, saying it’s a show of support for Palestinians in Gaza.

Israel has been retaliating with airstrikes.

In an exclusive interview in Beirut with The World’s Shirin Jaafari, Lebanon’s foreign minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, said that his country cannot afford an all-out war with Israel. Jaafari spoke to Marco Werman and Bou Habib about the conflict.

Marco Werman: What is the situation right now with these cross-border attacks between Israel and Hezbollah?
Shirin Jaafari: In southern Lebanon, which is about two hours drive from the capital, Beirut, there are almost daily exchanges. Israel carries out airstrikes, and then Hezbollah sends rockets and drones into Israel. And in fact, yesterday, we were reporting in the south, and we heard two airstrikes, one right after the other. And these were not far from where we were reporting, and we saw the smoke in the sky. We weren’t able to reach these areas, but it was just a reminder of how unstable the situation is right now in that part of the country.
Marco Werman: So, we’re speaking about Hezbollah, which is carrying out these attacks against Israel, but it’s not part of the Lebanese military, of course. Where does Lebanon’s government actually stand in the midst of all this?
Shirin Jaafari: Lebanon doesn’t have a government at the moment. It actually hasn’t had one for the past 18 months. It has a caretaker government. That’s because politicians can’t really agree on the makeup of the government. Just a little background here. Politics in Lebanon is based on a sectarian power-sharing structure. The three main government positions are the president, prime minister and parliament speaker. They must be split between a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim and a Shia Muslim. And there’s been a deadlock about the makeup of this government for months. And so, there is no unity when it comes to its position on what Hezbollah is doing.
Marco Werman: And within that government, there’s the office of the foreign minister, the caretaker foreign minister.
Shirin Jaafari: Exactly. I had an opportunity to sit down with the foreign minister, Abdallah Bou Habib, who is Christian and used to be Lebanon’s ambassador to the United Nations. We spoke at his office last Friday.
Shirin Jaafari: Are you in discussion with Hezbollah about the situation in the South, and what are you telling them?
Abdallah Bou Habib: We are always in discussion with Hezbollah as well as the Lebanese party. They are represented everywhere, at the bottom, especially. What we’re telling them, what we’re talking about, that we want a ceasefire. […] So, it is Israel who will decide whether they want a ceasefire or not. And Lebanon is asking for a ceasefire. And we discuss these issues with Hezbollah all the time.
Shirin Jaafari: Well, Hezbollah has also been firing rockets into Israel.
Abdallah Bou Habib: And Israel has been firing rockets and using the Air Force and using drones to Lebanon as well. Yeah. There is a small war going on in south Lebanon, and I think the Israelis are extending the war to test Hezbollah to find out what kind of weapons Hezbollah has.
Shirin Jaafari: And when you talk to Hezbollah, what do they tell you about what they want? And also, do you have any influence? Does the Lebanese government have any influence over Hezbollah?
Abdallah Bou Habib: Their leader, Mr. Hassan Nasrallah, said it very clearly. If this war ends with all occupied areas being liberated, this will be a great achievement. And we cannot stop the resistance movement when we have land that is occupied. So, it’s up to Israel. Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701 means that the occupation of Lebanese land would end and would go to the national border, which was agreed with Israel in 1949 under the auspices of the United Nations. We agreed on the borders. We want to go back to those borders. And if we go back to those borders, of course, the Lebanese government would work with Hezbollah in order to stop any of the military appearances themselves.
Marco Werman: Shirin, I’m wondering about the comment there from the Lebanese foreign minister about the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Help us out with some context here.
Shirin Jaafari: After the war between Israel and Lebanon ended in 2006, the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution which stated that Hezbollah should disarm and stop its attacks on Israel and that Israeli forces should withdraw behind what’s called the Blue Line. The Blue Line is a demarcation line dividing Lebanon and Israel, and it’s not an official border. Today, as we know, Hezbollah has not disarmed, and Lebanon accuses Israel of not fully withdrawing from its territories. And this is what the foreign minister is referring to — these contested areas in south of Lebanon.
Marco Werman: Right. OK. So, we know the situation now in Lebanon is pretty tense and people are worried about what happens next. You put that question to the foreign minister.
Shirin Jaafari: Yes.
Shirin Jaafari: What are you concerned about when it comes to the situation with Hezbollah and Israel? What are your concerns about what could happen?
Abdallah Bou Habib: You know, we had 15 years of war in Lebanon, and before that, we had some instability because […] refugees were operating against Israel from Lebanon. And this is really hitting very strongly on all of Lebanon. And 15 years of war, destruction and bloodshed was enough for us. We don’t want any war. We don’t want a civil war. There’s a lot of us who do not support what Hezbollah is doing in the south, but it doesn’t mean we go to war with Hezbollah. Nobody wants to do that. The government doesn’t want to do that at all, you know. So, that is why we would like to see a ceasefire in south Lebanon. And we hoped that the United States would accept the call for a ceasefire in south Lebanon, and we’ll see what happens.
Shirin Jaafari: Can the Lebanese government pressure Hezbollah to stop?
Abdallah Bou Habib:Hezbollah is more or less retaliating for Israeli attacks.
Shirin Jaafari: Whether it’s retaliating or not, it adds to the continuation of the war, right?
Abdallah Bou Habib: There’s no doubt about that. Israel is occupying land. And there’s a big war in Gaza, and there are a lot of people who feared they were anti-occupation of land […] And they have sympathy for what’s going on in Gaza. But if the United Nations would call for a ceasefire in south Lebanon, we would be sure that Hezbollah would also stop fighting Israel.
Shirin Jaafari: How would you do that?
Abdallah Bou Habib: We’ll do that. We’ll do that. I mean, I’m not sure if I have the plan or not yet.
Shirin Jaafari: Are you going to be asking for help from outside influence on Hezbollah?
No. We’ll discuss it with them. We are all citizens of same country. We always discuss issues with each other, and we continue to do that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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