BEIRUT — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin "expressed concern" to Israel's Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant, during a conversation on Saturday regarding Israel's involvement in heightening tensions along the border with Lebanon, according to a report by US news outlet Axios.
Axios, citing three US and Israeli sources who were briefed on the call, claims that "Austin's message to Gallant reflected growing anxiety in the White House that Israeli military action in Lebanon is exacerbating tensions along the border, which could lead to a regional war."
It also reported that some members of US President Joe Biden's administration are worried that Israel is trying to "provoke" Hezbollah, which could in turn "create a pretext for a wider war in Lebanon" which could drag the US and other regional actors, like Iran, into the conflict.
In the public readout of the call, the Pentagon said Austin "emphasized the need to contain the conflict to Gaza and avoid regional escalation" without specifically mentioning Lebanon reported Axios.
But, two US and Israeli sources with knowledge of the call said it was a direct and frank conversation and Austin specifically mentioned concerns about Israeli military action in Lebanon. An Israeli source said Austin asked Gallant for clarification about Israeli air strikes in Lebanon and asked that Israel avoid steps that could lead to an all-out war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Gallant told Austin that Israeli policy is not to open a second front in Lebanon and stressed he does not think such a scenario is going to happen, the Israeli source said.
Gallant also told Austin that Hezbollah is escalating its attacks, including a drone attack from Syria on the city of Eilat 350 miles away. "Hezbollah is playing with fire," Gallant told Austin reported Axios.
Context of growing escalation on Lebanon's southern border
Over the weekend there was a rise in tensions along Lebanon's southern border as Hezbollah claimed to have targeted "the logistical forces of the Israeli army" near the Dovev barracks as well as "an Israeli army bulldozer" with guided missiles, on Sunday. The Israeli army said a woman in her eighties was injured.
Meanwhile, the pro-Hezbollah channel al-Manar claimed these attacks resulted in ten casualties, in total, without specifying whether they were military or civilians — which Israel denies. Israeli media reported that 18 Israeli soldiers and civilians were injured in this incident, as well as another in the town of Manara.
The Israeli army responded by carrying out four airstrikes on the Khiam plain on Sunday, according to residents who spoke to L'Orient Today's correspondent in southern Lebanon.
After these attacks and following a security meeting dedicated to the escalation with the Lebanese group, the Israeli army stated that it has a "plan" to stabilize the security situation in the northern region.
On Saturday the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, said that cross-border clashes with Israel will continue until the end of "the aggression on Gaza," but that the Lebanese southern border "will remain a front of pressure."
A few minutes after the end of the speech, their Minister of Defense, Yoav Gallant, warned that Beirut could suffer the same fate as Gaza if Hezbollah dragged Lebanon into a war.
Calls by the US for calm
Recently the White House said Hezbollah must not exploit the Hamas-Israel conflict, and the United States did not want to see the conflict expand into Lebanon, according to Reuters.
President Biden's senior adviser Amos Hochstein traveled to Lebanon last week and delivered a strong warning to Hezbollah through Lebanon's Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, and other Lebanese officials not to escalate the situation, a source with direct knowledge of the issue said.
Faced with the risk of escalation, the Lebanese authorities have repeatedly reiterated their commitment to stability and to the implementation of UN Resolution 1701, to prevent an open war that would destroy the country.