Lebanon says contacts underway to ease tensions with Israel
By BASSAM HATOUM
Feb. 08, 2018
NAQOURA, Lebanon (AP) — Diplomatic contacts are underway between Beirut and "friendly countries" to ease tensions with Israel over a cement wall it is building along the border which Lebanon says would encroach on its territory, the government said Thursday.
Cabinet Minister Pierre Abi Assi told reporters after a government meeting that top Lebanese officials are in contact with the United Nations and some countries that he did not name to try and decrease tensions that have escalated over the construction of the wall.
On Thursday, an Associated Press team saw construction workers on the Israeli side of the border setting up the concrete wall. A flatbed truck carrying giant cement barriers was seen at the border as a crane lifted cement blocks and placed them on the border. An Israeli bulldozer was seen excavating at the border line.
President Michel Aoun tweeted earlier that the contacts aim to prevent Israeli "ambitions" from taking over Lebanon's land and water, adding that Beirut would confront any Israeli attack.
Abi Assi quoted Prime Minister Saad Hariri as telling the Cabinet that he, along with Aoun, the parliament speaker and the foreign minister are conducting the contacts and "we hope they will lead to positive results."
On Wednesday, Lebanon's top security body instructed the military to confront Israel if it goes ahead with plans to build the cement border wall, labeling it as an "aggression" against its sovereignty.
Lebanon and Israel are technically at war and both countries have fought several wars over the past decades.
Also on Thursday, Aoun received David Satterfield, the U.S. acting assistant secretary of state, and American ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard. Aoun's office gave no further details about the meeting.
Lebanese and Israeli military officials held an indirect meeting Monday to discuss the issues in regular U.N.-sponsored talks.
Israel has in recent days escalated its threats against Lebanon over Lebanon's invitation for offshore gas exploration bids on the countries' maritime border.
Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman described Lebanon's exploration tender as "very provocative" and suggested that Lebanon had put out invitations for bids from international groups for a gas field "which is by all accounts ours."
His comments drew sharp condemnation from the militant Hezbollah group and Lebanese officials, including Hariri, a Western ally, who described Lieberman's comments as a "blatant provocation that Lebanon rejects."
Abi Assi quoted Hariri as saying Thursday that area in the water that Israel is claiming "is owned by Lebanon."
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed to this report from Beirut.