BEIRUT/NAQOURA, Lebanon: Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield visited southern Lebanon Thursday before presenting proposals to President Michel Aoun on ways to maintain stability along the border with Israel.
“He is mediating between Lebanon and Israel,” a presidential source told The Daily Star, referring to Satterfield. The diplomat has worked extensively in the region and was U.S. ambassador to Lebanon from 1998 to 2001.
During a meeting between Aoun, Satterfield and current U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard, discussions revolved around developments in south Lebanon in light of recent tensions with Israel over a wall construction project along the border and disputed maritime territory. “Talks tackled U.S. efforts to address the situation and Satterfield presented proposals aimed at ensuring stability and calm along the border,” a statement from Aoun’s office read.
The president reiterated Lebanon’s opposition to Israel’s so-called security barrier project, which was also expressed during Thursday’s Cabinet session and Wednesday’s Higher Defense Council meeting. The council issued instructions to confront any aggressions to prevent Israel from building any part of the wall on Lebanese territory. During the Cabinet meeting, Aoun said contacts were ongoing to prevent “Israeli aggressions on our land and sea,” adding that “we will confront any attack on them.”
Satterfield went on to assure Aoun of continued U.S. support for the Lebanese state, “especially the military and security forces.” Earlier in the day, Satterfield and General Security head Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim toured the southern border, one day after Israel began building the barrier. Sources said that Satterfield and Ibrahim witnessed the construction firsthand before they met with UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Michael Beary. During the talks held at UNIFIL’s headquarters in south Lebanon’s Naqoura, the sources said compliance with U.N. Resolution 1701 was touched upon as well. Reuters reported that the U.S. envoy assured Lebanon that Israel does not seek an escalation between the countries following a surge in hostile rhetoric. “He [Satterfield] held talks regarding the [border] wall with Israel and said there is no call for concern, and there is no direction toward escalation,” Reuters quoted an unidentified senior Lebanese government official as saying. An Israeli official, who also declined to be identified, told Reuters that Satterfield was “relaying messages” to Beirut about several matters of contention.
“Our position has always been that we do not want to see the situation inflamed,” the official said, adding that the U.S. and at least two European countries were mediating. Aoun, speaking to officials during the Cabinet meeting, also said that several countries were mediating, including the U.S.
Sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Star that the Army informed UNIFIL any digging or construction of the wall that encroaches on disputed land would be met with “appropriate measures as was made clear by the Higher Defense Council [Wednesday].”
However, the sources added that there was no unusual presence of the Army along the border, the situation is “completely normal” and the Israelis were not close to the disputed area on the Lebanese side.
As construction was being carried out, Israeli soldiers were stationed on watchtowers and carried out patrols near the work on the wall.
Satterfield also met with Army head Gen. Joseph Aoun in Yarze, where the Army chief said Lebanon rejected Israel’s violation of its sovereignty.
According to a statement from the Army, “He stressed the position of Lebanon rejecting attempts by this enemy to build a separating wall passing through the [disputed] Lebanese areas.”
Al Jadeed TV reported that excavation and digging started two weeks ago, but the 40 cement barriers – each 1 meter long – were put up as of Thursday. The local channel said the wall itself would spread across 5 kilometers.
Also Thursday, UNIFIL spokesman Andrea Tenenti said the mission was following up on the work and carrying out its routine patrols along the Blue Line. After Israel began putting up the first cement blocks Wednesday, Tenenti said: “The UNIFIL leadership is keen on communicating with both sides of the border to reduce any tension or escalation.” He described the situation along the border as “stable and calm.”
The recent allegations and activities carried out by the Jewish state have helped unite sparring sides on the political front in Lebanon. After Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said last week that oil and gas exploration projects in Lebanon’s maritime Block 9 were “very provocative,” Aoun phoned Speaker Nabih Berri and called for an urgent meeting between the two plus Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Lieberman urged international firms not to carry out work in the block and said it belonged to Israel despite a consortium of companies having already won a license to undertake exploration in the maritime territory. An official ceremony will be held Friday to mark the signing of agreements between the companies and the government.
Also Thursday, the U.S. Department of State formally announced that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will visit Beirut next week during a regional tour.