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Defense chief says Israel does not want war, but warns Hezbollah and cites progress in resolving the arms conflict with the US

WASHINGTON: Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said during a visit to Washington that his country does not want a war in Lebanon but is ready to inflict “enormous damage” on Hezbollah if diplomacy fails.

“We don’t want war, but we are preparing for every scenario,” Gallant told reporters during the visit that ended on Wednesday. “Hezbollah understands very well that we can cause enormous damage to Lebanon if a war starts,” he said.

Tensions have been rising as border skirmishes between Israel and Iran-backed militia have intensified since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, which sparked a relentless Israeli retaliatory campaign in Gaza.

Gallant said Israel has killed more than 400 Hezbollah “terrorists” in recent months.

Damaged Israeli military positions targeted by Hezbollah fighters can be seen atop Mount Hermon in the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, where the borders between Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet. (AP Photo)

Israel’s defense minister was in Washington for three days, meeting with officials in an attempt to quietly resolve a rift over U.S. arms supplies, a stark contrast to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s more confrontational approach.

“We made significant progress during the meetings, we removed obstacles and we removed bottlenecks,” Gallant said after meeting with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser.

Gallant said the progress concerns “various issues,” including “the topic of force buildup and the supply of ammunition that we need to provide to the State of Israel.”

“I would like to thank the U.S. administration and the American people for their continued support for the State of Israel,” he said.

In recent days, Netanyahu has publicly accused the Biden administration of slowing down arms deliveries to Israel, which has been at war in Gaza since the October 7 Hamas attack.

US officials have denied the accusations and shown irritation in the months before an election in which Biden’s support for Israel has become a liability and the left flank of his Democratic Party is outraged by the high number of Palestinian civilian deaths.

The United States in early May froze a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs, and Biden warned of a further freeze as he pressed Israel not to launch a large-scale military attack on Rafah, a city in southern Gaza that is home to more than a million displaced Palestinians. he was looking for shelter.

A senior U.S. administration official said the United States has sent more than $6.5 billion worth of weapons to Israel since October 7, including nearly $3 billion in May alone.

“It’s a huge, huge undertaking and nothing is being held back except for one shipment,” the official told reporters on condition of anonymity.

The official blamed the split on a misunderstanding of the “complex” bureaucratic process in the US. He said Gallant’s team and U.S. experts analyzed “every single case.”

“There has been real progress and mutual understanding of where things stand, prioritization of certain issues over others, so that we can make sure that we are moving forward in a way that meets the needs of Israelis,” he said.

A member of the Lebanese Civil Defense Corps inspects the site of an Israeli air attack on the southern village of Khiam near the Lebanese border with northern Israel, June 26, 2024 (AFP)

Biden – whose approach to Israel has drawn criticism from both progressives and the right – held off on cutting arms supplies after Israel carried out what U.S. officials called relatively targeted operations in Rafah.

Netanyahu and Gallant said the most intense phase of fighting is over, with Israel set to move forces toward the border with Lebanon after growing skirmishes with Iran-backed militant Hezbollah.

A U.S. official said Washington is in “pretty intense talks” with Israel, Lebanon and others and believes neither side is seeking a “major escalation.”

Gallant, who met twice in Washington with Amos Hochstein, the American intermediary between Israel and Lebanon, assured that his country was trying to avoid all-out war with the Iran-backed Hezboll militia in Lebanon.

“We don’t want war, but we are preparing for every scenario,” Gallant told reporters.

US officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have expressed hope that a ceasefire in Gaza could also lead to a reduction in tensions over Lebanon.

On May 31, Biden presented a plan for a temporary ceasefire and the release of the hostages, but Hamas returned with further demands.

Despite criticism of the proposal from some far-right allies, Netanyahu Gallant said: “We are all committed to the president’s agreement and we strongly support it.”

“Hamas must accept this or face the consequences,” he said.

The war in the Gaza Strip began on October 7 with a Hamas attack on southern Israel, which killed 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to AFP calculations based on Israeli data.

Militants also seized about 250 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza, although the army says 42 are dead.

According to the Hamas-led health ministry in Gaza, at least 37,718 people, most of them civilians, were killed in the Israeli retaliatory offensive.

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