09:40 GMT12 May 2021
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    Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Hezbollah of being an Iranian "proxy," and claimed the group had taken control of the newly formed Lebanese government. The claims were made amid ongoing tensions over a network of tunnels found on the Lebanese-Israeli border, and Israeli fears of Hezbollah's growing missile capabilities.

    Hezbollah does not believe Israel is capable of starting a conflict with Lebanon, but considers itself "ready" to respond if they do so, the group's deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said in an interview with Lebanese television on Sunday, Press TV has reported.

    "I don't think Israel is ready to start a conflict with Lebanon now because the situation is complicated and Israel is not interested in war," Qassem said. "But if it wants to launch a war, we are ready," the official warned. 

    Responding to Prime Minister Netanyahu's claim that the newly formed Lebanese government was "controlled" by Hezbollah, Qassem said this wasn't the case.

    "These allegations are not important. Hezbollah considers itself part of a national unity government in Lebanon," he said. Qassem pointed out that the group comprised "only 10 per cent" of the government, with just three of the new government's thirty one ministers being Hezbollah members or affiliates.

    Earlier, Netanyahu reiterated his longstanding view that Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy, and vowed to send a "very powerful message, just as we stop the terror tunnels coming into Israel: We will stop all the aggression, from Lebanon or from Syria or from Iran itself."

    Lebanon formed a new government on Thursday, following nine months of deadlock after elections last May. Long delays in cabinet formation are common in Lebanese politics due to the country's political system, which allocates power on the basis of sectarian affiliation.

    Together with Israel, the United States voiced concerns over Hezbollah's participation in the new government, including its control of the health ministry, which enjoys the country's largest budget. Qassem emphasised that Hezbollah's control over the health portfolio will not in any way alter the system's functioning, with new minister Hezbollah affiliate Dr. Jamil Jabak listing his priorities as improving state hospitals and lowering prescription drug prices.

    Already tense relations between Israel and Lebanon escalated further late last year after the Israeli military launched an operation on the border to destroy what Tel Aviv described as Hezbollah's "terror tunnels." The militant group dismissed the operation, saying the tunnels were built well before the 2006 war. Israel carried out fresh drills along the border area last week, reportedly simulating armed conflict with Hezbollah militants.


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    new government, claims, tensions, response, relations, Hezbollah, Naim Qassem, Lebanon, Israel
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