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BEIRUT: France’s top diplomat was due in Beirut later Monday for talks on de-escalating near-daily exchanges of fire on the Israel border, which have triggered fears of all-out conflict.
Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna was expected to call for responsibility and restraint in her meetings with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and parliament speaker Nabih Berri, a key ally of powerful Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah.
Since October 8, the day after the Israel-Hamas conflict started, the frontier between Lebanon and Israel has seen escalating exchanges of fire, mainly between the Israeli army and Hezbollah, which says it is acting in support of Hamas.
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.
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 attacks.
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 an all-out war.
But he warned that ensuring the security of Israelis near the border meant pushing Hezbollah “north of the Litani River,” some 30 kilometers (20 miles) north of the border.
“There are two ways to do that: either by diplomacy or by force,” Cohen said.
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, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including a Lebanese soldier and 17 civilians, three of them 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.
Israel insists on applying United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and called for the removal of all weapons from south Lebanon, except for those of the army and other state security forces.
Since that conflict, Hezbollah has not had a visible military presence in the border area, which is patrolled by United Nations peacekeepers.
Colonna is to discuss the situation on the ground with the commander of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Major General Aroldo Lazaro.
France, which contributes some 700 troops to the UN force, has condemned recent attacks on peacekeepers and their facilities.
The Israel-Hamas war began with unprecedented attacks by the Palestinian Islamist group on October 7, which killed 1,139 people, mostly civilians, and saw some 250 more abducted to Gaza, according to Israeli figures.
The health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza says more than 18,800 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory campaign.

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