Israel claims soldiers raid conduct mine clearing operation near Lebanese border
Israel's army radio announced on Tuesday that Israeli special forces had crossed into a disputed border territory with Lebanon to conduct a mine-clearing operation, a claim that Hezbollah-affiliated media denied.
According to the army radio, a special Israeli reconnaissance unit entered the disputed border area of Aita al-Shaab but did not actually cross the border.
Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese TV channel affiliated with Hezbollah, denied that Israeli forces entered the area and said they were spotted by "resistance forces" and were forced to turn back.
The town of Aita al-Shaab was where the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel started, and it maintains a special importance as a resistance site in the political history of southern Lebanon.
The announcement comes as hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel gradually escalate, with three months of cross-border clashes coming to a head after a series of high-profile assassinations carried out by Israel in Lebanon.
The Major General of Israeli forces, Ori Gordin, said on Tuesday that Israeli troops are in a high state of readiness, speaking to soldiers who carried out an exercise simulating an operation in Lebanon.
"We are more ready for this than we have ever been, for tonight if we have to," Gordin said.
The Major General said that tens of thousands of soldiers were deployed to Israel's northern border with Lebanon.
Israel has said that it is entering a new phase of its military operation in Gaza, which will allow it to concentrate more resources on its border with Lebanon. More than 24,000 Palestinians have been killed in the course of Israel's operation on Gaza, the majority of whom are women and children.
Hezbollah has warned Israel not to enter into a full war with Lebanon, threatening a "war with no limits" if provoked. The group has further said that it will stop fighting with Israel once a ceasefire in Gaza is achieved.
Israel has demanded not only a ceasefire on the Lebanese front but also a withdrawal of Hezbollah's forces north of the Litani River, which sits about 30 kilometres from the two countries' shared border. It has threatened to remove Hezbollah by force if the group does not do so itself.
Hezbollah has said publicly that it will not engage in negotiations before hostilities in Gaza stop, but Western diplomats have continued to try to start discussions of a possible off-ramp with the group.
Amos Hoschstein, a top official tasked with mediating between Israel and Lebanon, visited Beirut on 11 January to explore avenues to de-escalate between the two countries.
According to al-Akhbar, a publication close to Hezbollah, Hochstein asked Hezbollah to withdraw its fighters seven kilometres from the border so that residents of Israel could return, rather than north of the Litani. The Lebanese army would replace Hezbollah under the US proposal.
The magazine also reported that the US is pushing to start negotiations over the 13 disputed points on the Lebanese-Israeli border, a move that the Lebanese state has said it would be open to. Hezbollah reiterated its stance that it will not engage in negotiations until a ceasefire is implemented in Gaza.