March 8, 2018 / 2:02 PM / 7 months ago

UNIFIL says 'no appetite' for war as Lebanon, Israel talk about border dispute

NAQOURA, Lebanon (Reuters) - Lebanon and Israel have been holding talks nearly every day over a border dispute that has raised tensions between the two enemy states, according to the U.N. peacekeeping force on the frontier that is mediating their discussions.

United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers watch as Israeli workers build a wall near the border with Israel, near the village of Naqoura, Lebanon March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

“There is a full engagement from all the sides and there have been meetings almost on a daily basis. The dialogue is open. No one has ever walked out from these meetings,” said Andrea Tenenti, spokesman for the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

Tensions have spiked recently over an Israeli border wall, Lebanese offshore energy exploration, and the growing arsenal of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which Israel sees as the biggest threat on its frontier.

Lebanon, Israel and UNIFIL were already holding three-way talks every few weeks in a building on the border near the peacekeepers’ base at Naqoura in southern Lebanon. They are now being held more often, Tenenti said, along with indirect talks conducted through UNIFIL.

United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) peacekeepers watch as Israeli workers build a wall near the border with Israel, near the village of Naqoura, Lebanon March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho

Israel is building a border wall near the Blue Line, as the frontier demarcation between the two countries in lieu of a formal border agreement is known.

Lebanon has described the wall as an “aggression”, saying it intrudes into Lebanese territory. Israel says the wall will be entirely on its side of the Blue Line and in Israeli territory.

At the same time, Lebanon has begun oil and gas exploration in a block that includes a small area of sea along the maritime frontier that is claimed by Israel.

“There is a will to keep this dialogue open ... I think now, beside the heightened rhetoric, the reality on the ground is different and there is no appetite for instability or for war,” Tenenti said.

Slideshow (3 Images)

BLUE LINE

Reuters footage from a recent trip to the border area showed construction work in areas along the Blue Line, including cranes erecting concrete blocks and bulldozers working at a fence.

Israel occupied southern Lebanon from 1982 to 2000 and in 2006 it waged a month-long war against Hezbollah there. Israel says the Shi’ite Muslim group has grown stronger due to its role in the Syrian civil war, and has attacked it there.

“The last 12 years have seen the quietest period the south of Lebanon has witnessed in over 30 years,” Tenenti said.

“But it is important to keep in mind that things along the Blue Line are in general very sensitive. Anything could, if it is not addressed immediately, potentially spark into something bigger and increase tension.”

For Abu Moussa Taher, 77, a shop owner in Naqoura, the idea of a new war seems distant.

“It is impossible, I think. When you think of a war, you have to think of its consequences,” said Taher, who says he has witnessed all of the wars to hit the area since 1978.

Writing by Ayat Basma; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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