Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri toured the border area with Israel on Friday, highlighting the deployment of the Lebanese army along the Israeli border. The visit came a day after the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah militia organized a tour for Lebanese and foreign journalists along the border in the company of armed Hezbollah fighters.
Lebanese sources said that Hariri’s decision to tour the border region came on Thursday following a report of the Hezbollah-sponsored visit for members of the media. The Lebanese prime minister was said to be sending the message that the government of Lebanon is the sovereign power in southern Lebanon and not any other group, including Hezbollah. It was also noted that this was the first time in decades that a Lebanese prime minister had visited the Israeli border area.
Hariri was accompanied on his visit by Lebanon’s defense minister, Yacoub Sarraf, and by Lebanese Army commander Joseph Aoun. Hariri initially landed by helicopter at a base maintained by UNIFIL, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, near Naqoura just north of the Israeli border on the Mediterranean.
Hariri met with UNIFIL commander Gen. Michael Perry and then toured two positions that were also on the Hezbollah press tour.
“The Lebanese army has the mandate to defend the border and there is no force above it,” the prime minister said in a clear message to Hezbollah and noting that the Lebanese government is committed to UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which ended the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Israel. The prime minister said that the government objected to the Hezbollah press tour. It is well-known, Hariri added, that there are differences of opinion among various Lebanese factions, but that doesn’t mean that one or another faction sets policy.
The Lebanese prime minister claimed Israel is violating Resolution 1701. He said that the Lebanese government is submitting complaints on the matter and wishes to reach a full cease-fire without violations. “The Lebanese army is on the border to maintain sovereignty and it is receiving every support both political and logistic because the Lebanese army is the sole body that represents all the Lebanese,” he stated. There is a new policy in Lebanon and the Lebanese government is taking responsibility for all of the country’s citizens, Hariri added.
Hezbollah sources claimed on Friday that the Shi’ite militia group’s press tour was not a provocation against the Lebanese government but rather a message to Israel that Hezbollah was deployed on the border despite its involvement in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Syria government and that it was following developments in Israel.
Despite Hezbollah’s statements, the group came in for criticism for dispatching armed fighters on the tour, which was seen as a violation of Security Council Resolution 1701. And despite official government comments, it is understood in Lebanon that the significant military presence in southern Lebanon is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese army.
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