(CNN) — Israel’s military has repeatedly attacked the US-backed Lebanese army to the north over the past two months, prompting alarm in the Biden administration and sharp rebukes from top US officials to Israeli leadership.
The Israelis have struck Lebanese Armed Forces positions more than 34 times since October 7, including with small arms and artillery fire, drones and helicopters, according to US officials, a regional security source, and a list of the incidents compiled by the US and reviewed by CNN.
The Biden administration has told Israel that the strikes are unacceptable, officials said. One senior US official said that the US believes at least some of those strikes have been accidental, intended instead for the powerful Shiite Lebanese militant group Hezbollah which also operates along the Lebanon-Israel border and has been hitting Israeli military positions. But the intention of other strikes has been less clear, the official said, and more junior Israeli troops may not be exercising enough restraint.
But the scope of the incidents, which has not been previously reported, has frustrated US officials because the US believes the LAF will need to be part of any eventual diplomatic solution between Israel and Lebanon to quiet the current violence. The US is also deeply concerned that the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza could expand to the north, and US officials have been working with Israel and Lebanon to try to contain the war.
“The United States has been clear we do not want to see this conflict spread to Lebanon and we continue to urge the Israelis do all they can to be targeted and avoid civilians, civilian infrastructure, civilian farmland, the UN, and the Lebanese Armed Forces,” a spokesperson for the White House’s National Security Council told CNN. “The United States is proud of its partnership with the LAF, an essential institution, not only to the stability and security of Lebanon, but of the entire region.”
A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces told CNN on Friday that any harm caused “to other forces is unintentional.”
“In response to Hezbollah’s aggression, the IDF strikes the terrorist organization’s military infrastructure and works to eliminate any threat to the State of Israel,” IDF spokeperson Nir Dinar said.
“Any harm to civilians and other forces is unintentional. Such incidents are reviewed in order to improve operational precautions and to ensure accountability when necessary,” Dinar added.
The Lebanese military is not as strong as Hezbollah, which gets funding, training and weapons from Iran and is one of the most formidable paramilitary forces in the Middle East. But the US backing of the LAF gives Washington a partner in an active region that it can work with on a range of priorities, including counterterrorism. The senior US official noted that the LAF is popular among the Lebanese public and, while not seen as a perfect counterweight to Hezbollah, is a neutral alternative that the US believes will be an important player in any future peace settlement.
US officials believe Israel’s attacks on the Lebanese military have resulted in at least eight injuries and one death since October 7.
According to a US list of the strikes seen by CNN, one Lebanese soldier was killed and three were wounded on December 5 after four tank shells hit a position on the Blue Line, the UN’s demarcation of the border between Israel and Lebanon.
The Israeli military apologized and said the Lebanese Armed Forces were not the target of the strike. The LAF has not struck back militarily, US officials said.
Among the other incidents in southern Lebanon were Israeli strikes on two LAF positions on October 21 that destroyed an observation post. Six days later, a LAF patrol that included a brigade commander came under direct fire, according to US officials. On December 8, one Lebanese soldier suffered from the effects of white phosphorous.
That followed an October incident in which Israel reportedly used US-supplied white phosphorous munitions and injured at least nine civilians, according to The Washington Post. The White House said it would be seeking answers from Israel about its use of white phosphorous.
“The IDF’s continued pattern of strikes against LAF positions are concerning and irresponsible. The LAF is a critical and independent force that successive US administrations have supported in recognition of its important role in stability in Lebanon,” said a senior congressional aide. “Many members of Congress share the administration’s strong concerns with such actions.”
As the pace of the strikes escalated, administration officials made clear to Israeli leadership that they need to be more careful, US officials told CNN. Meanwhile, the US has been working with Lebanon to try to quell the violence between Israel and Hezbollah and quiet the northern border. Israel wants Hezbollah to retreat north of the Litani River, which is about 18 miles away from the border, Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant has said.
On October 13, a Reuters journalist was killed and six other journalists were wounded in two tank artillery strikes in southern Lebanon while covering the fighting. The journalists, clearly wearing blue flak jackets marked ‘Press’, were on an exposed hilltop as Israeli helicopters and drones buzzed above.
Investigations by two human rights groups as well as Reuters and Agence France-Presse found that the targeting was likely deliberate. Human Rights Watch called the attack a potential war crime.
“This is not the first time that Israeli forces have apparently deliberately attacked journalists, with deadly and devastating results,” said Ramzi Kaiss, a Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Those responsible need to be held to account, and it needs to be made clear that journalists and other civilians are not lawful targets.”
Source : CNN politics