BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi has condemned attempts by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to link its southern Lebanon border conflict with Israel to the war in Gaza.
In his Sunday sermon, Al-Rahi also called for the removal of Hezbollah missile launchers “planted between homes in Lebanese border towns,” warning that the presence of such weapons “invites a destructive Israeli response.”
The patriarch’s address on the final day of 2023 came as Hezbollah militants and Israeli forces again exchanged fire in border areas.
Al-Rahi warned against extending the (Gaza) conflict to southern Lebanon, and called for Lebanese citizens to be protected, saying “they have not yet recovered from the disastrous Lebanese war.”
He said: “We can no longer find words to condemn Israel’s arrogant and boastful war with its advanced weapons on the people of Gaza, including its children, women, and elderly in their safe homes, hospitals, mosques, and churches.
“We direct significant condemnation toward the silent international community. Israel believes it can quash the Palestinian cause and end the demand for a two-state solution and the return of refugees to their land through this war.
“However, we say that injustice begets injustice, and war begets war; justice comes through peace.”
An online account last Saturday posted images of two missile launchers in an olive field on the outskirts of the Christian-majority border town of Rmeish, and voiced alarm at “any action that threatens the safety of residents and exposes them to imminent danger.”
In a post, the Free Patriotic Movement, a Hezbollah ally, said that Rmeish “did not object to the movement of the Lebanese resistance on its border outskirts, but rather objected to any attempt to expose Rmeish and its people to danger.”
The FPM added: “The most dangerous thing is that we do not know who planted the launcher.
“Is it the Lebanese Islamic Resistance, the Al-Quds Brigades, Hamas, or one of the armed factions that have repeatedly used southern lands to carry out operations to achieve objectives for a cause other than the south’s cause?
“We strongly reject unknown resistances with unknown sources and objectives.”
Father Najib Al-Amil, the town’s parish priest, later confirmed that a Lebanese army unit had dismantled the launchers.
The Israeli army continued its attacks with fighter planes and drones on Lebanese towns in the western sector, raiding the outskirts of the town of Alma Al-Shaab toward Labouneh and Naqoura.
The Israeli army said that it targeted Hezbollah infrastructure and military sites in Ramyah with airstrikes.
While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that “if peace is not achieved on the northern front through politics, we will achieve it through war,” Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem declared that Israel must stop the Gaza war in order for the fighting in Lebanon to stop.
Qassem also warned that further shelling of civilians in Lebanon “means that the response will be stronger and proportional to the Israeli aggression.”
Hezbollah said on Sunday that it had targeted Israeli military sites, including Hanita, which “was directly hit.”
Israeli media said that sirens sounded in the Upper Galilee and Western Galilee.
Over the past 48 hours, Hezbollah announced the death of more fighters, including some killed in Syria.
Among those killed in southern Lebanon was Ali Ahmed Saad, a high school chemistry professor, who died when a shell struck his home in the border town of Bint Jbeil.
Caretaker Education and Higher Education Minister Abbas Al-Halabi paid tribute to Saad, saying that “this exemplary young man was devoted to the land and defense of Lebanon’s soil and dignity against a ruthless enemy that does not hesitate to crush civilians and demolish schools, hospitals, and places of worship over the heads of innocents in Palestine and Lebanon.”
Al-Halabi appealed to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to “shield educational institutions and innocent civilians from the ravages of war and destruction, and to exert pressure to stop the war that is crushing Gaza, killing its people, afflicting Lebanon daily, claiming martyrs, and demolishing homes.”
Sheikh Naim Qassem said that Israel is “seeking to show that it can keep Hezbollah and the resistance away from the south so they can be reassured, even in the middle of the battle.
“We say to them: Israel is in no position to impose its options; the resistance is in a position to respond to aggression, reject the consolidation of the Israeli project, and prevent Israel from achieving its goals in Gaza, Lebanon, and the region.”
Hezbollah’s response came a day after Maj. Gen. Aroldo Lazaro, UNIFIL’s head of mission and force commander, warned that “the possibility of a greater escalation in the south is ever-present.”
He added that “containing the conflict largely in the areas near the Blue Line is a sign that the parties do not want escalation, but there is always a risk of miscalculation, and UNIFIL is working hard to avert this outcome.”