The New York Times 2024-07-11 08:10:26

Middle East Crisis: Israel Urges Gaza City Residents to Evacuate, Calling It a ‘Combat Zone’

The Israeli military urged Palestinians to head south, signaling that the renewed fighting there would likely continue.

The Israeli military on Wednesday urged Palestinians across the city to evacuate to the south, a sign that the renewed fighting meant to crack down on a resurgent Hamas insurgency would likely continue after nine months of war.

Israeli planes dropped leaflets on the city urging its residents to head for central Gaza through four “safe corridors.” Israel has already issued warnings for Palestinians to leave specific parts of Gaza City, and it was not clear if its latest statement amounted to an expansion of those calls. But the notice raised new fears among residents, many of whom have been displaced multiple times.

“Gaza City will remain a dangerous combat zone,” the Israeli military said in a statement published on social media. It said that Palestinians who left Gaza City through the approved routes would get out “quickly and without inspection.”

Israeli troops had sent ground troops into the Shajaiye neighborhood late last month and the fighting has since expanded to other parts of the city. The military said later on Wednesday that it had concluded its operation in Shajaiye, but it gave no indication that fighting would end elsewhere.

Israeli troops have re-entered Gaza City in recent days, in the latest instance of Israeli forces returning to fight in places they had secured earlier and then withdrew. The Israeli military has repeatedly returned to areas across the Gaza Strip in an attempt to suppress Hamas fighters, who have fought a dogged guerrilla war. Analysts have said Israel’s unwillingness to install an alternative administration in Gaza has created a power vacuum, allowing Hamas to regroup.

In January, the Israeli military dialed back the intensity of its military campaign in Gaza City and the rest of the north. Since then, Israeli forces have carried out a series of targeted raids in the area, and in March its troops raided Al-Shifa hospital for a second time, killing nearly 200 people it called “terrorists” and leaving devastation behind after extended gun battles with Palestinian militants.

It is not clear how many Hamas fighters remain in Gaza City. After sending ground forces into Shajaiye, Israeli troops moved into other parts of the city: Tel al-Hawa, where Israeli forces stormed a United Nations compound that the military said had taken over by militants, as well as the neighborhoods of Al-Daraj and Tuffah.

In statements on social media, Hamas has said over the past few days that its forces were fighting Israeli troops in Shajaiye and Tel al-Hawa. In Shajaiye alone, Israel claims its troops have eliminated “more than 150 terrorists” over the past week and have destroyed six underground tunnels.

Hamas has used urban areas in Gaza to conceal its operations, running tunnels under neighborhoods and holding hostages in city centers. The group’s members, who are from Gaza, have long lived among the civilian population.

Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, has said that the group tries to keep Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way, but Israeli operations in Gaza have left little room to maneuver.

Israel first ordered hundreds of thousands of Gazans in the northern part of the enclave to move south in mid-October, just days after the Hamas-led attack that killed 1,200 in Israel and saw 250 taken hostage. Hundreds of thousands remained, however, and others joined them after a weeklong truce in November allowed some to return to their homes in the north.

In May, at least 200,000 people were still in northern Gaza, according to the United Nations. But the new wave of Israeli military operations has forced tens of thousands from their homes, leaving the current tally unclear.

Many have been already been displaced multiple times, seeking shelter in schools and relatives’ homes, only to be forced to flee the fighting yet again.

“People continue to flee and be on the run in search for safety that they never find,” said Juliette Touma, a spokeswoman for UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinians, said on Wednesday. “Gaza has become an exodus on repeat.”

Key Developments

A top White House official meets with Netanyahu, and other news.

  • The top White House official for Middle East affairs met in Israel on Wednesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said he and the official, Brett McGurk, discussed negotiations on a cease-fire and hostage release deal, during which the Israeli leader said he was committed to the process “as long as Israel’s red lines are preserved.” Mr. Netanyahu has long insisted that the war must continue until Israel has destroyed Hamas’s military and governing abilities. Mr. Gallant said that in his meeting with Mr. McGurk he had stressed the need for security guarantees along the border between Gaza and Egypt that would cut off Hamas’s ability to rearm itself through smuggling.

  • Gazan health officials said on Wednesday afternoon that Israeli attacks in Gaza had killed at least 52 people and injured more than 200 over the previous 24 hours, a significant daily toll that came as fighting intensified in several places. Among the dead were six children who were killed in a strike on Nuseirat, in central Gaza, according to Wafa, the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency. Others were killed by Israeli bombardment of a house in Deir al Balah, within what the Israeli military has designated as a “humanitarian zone,” The Associated Press reported.

  • The Israeli military said its tanks and artillery struck Syrian military targets on Wednesday in a buffer zone established in a 1974 agreement between Syria and Israel. The military claimed that Syrian forces had violated the agreement and were responsible for “all activities occurring within its territory.” Israel has ramped up strikes on Syria, often targeting Hezbollah and other Iran-backed armed groups. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said on Wednesday that it had documented more than 50 similar attacks in 2024, in which 176 people have died, including members of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

  • Houthi forces in Yemen appear to have resumed attacks on commercial ships in the Red Sea after pausing strikes for more than a week, according to the British military’s United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations, which tracks the incidents. On Wednesday the agency said it received a report of an explosion close to a vessel about 45 miles south of the coast of Yemen, the second attack in two days. Before that, the last reported attack in the region had been on June 27. The Houthis, an Iran-backed militia, have been attacking ships in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden since November to support Hamas in its war against Israel. They did not immediately claim responsibility for the recent incidents. The U.S. Central Command said on social media on Wednesday that its forces had destroyed two Houthi aerial drones and a drone boat that “presented an imminent threat to U.S., coalition forces, and merchant vessels in the region.”

A deadly Israeli strike at a school turned shelter shatters a moment of cheer.

It was a moment of respite and levity in Gaza: Boys played soccer in the courtyard of a school building as a crowd looked on.

The moment did not last.

Video shared by Al Jazeera and verified by The New York Times recorded the instant an Israeli airstrike hit outside the school turned shelter on Tuesday night, killing at least 27 Palestinians, according to Gazan authorities.

In the video, shot at the Al Awda School on the outskirts of Khan Younis, the ball is in midair when a large explosion is heard and the camera shakes. A man yells, “Run away, run away, Al Awda has been targeted!”

The person shooting the video runs to the entrance of the school, and the camera pans across a scene of devastation. Shredded bodies are on the ground amid debris, and there is a cacophony of screams. “Oh God,” someone yells.

The Israeli military said that the strike targeted a Hamas member who took part in the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that ignited the war. It did not release details on the identity of the Hamas member or whether the person had been killed. The military said it was “looking into reports that civilians were harmed.”

Iyad Qadeh, who was sitting outside his home near the entrance of the school at the time of the strike, said it had been calm and there were not even Israeli surveillance drones in the sky, as there often are above Gaza, creating a nearly nonstop buzzing.

Suddenly, a warplane flew overhead and fired a missile toward a group of young men sitting in an internet café, he said.

“After that, it was screams and body parts everywhere,” he said. “Everyone started running searching for their children or family members.”

The strike was the fourth in four days that hit or damaged a school building in Gaza, Philippe Lazzarini, commissioner-general of UNRWA, the U.N. agency that helps Palestinians, wrote on social media Wednesday.

Since Israel began its punishing military offensive in Gaza more than nine months ago, two-thirds of U.N.-run school facilities in the territory have been hit, Mr. Lazzarini wrote. “Schools have gone from safe places of education & hope for children to overcrowded shelters and often ending up a place of death & misery,” he said.

Those shelters have become critical for Palestinians in Gaza since Israeli bombardment and ground fighting have forced much of the territory’s 2.2 million residents to flee their homes. The Israeli military has claimed that militants are using such shelters and other civilian buildings to hide themselves and their activities.

Ghazi Hamad, a senior Hamas official, has said that the group tries to keep Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way.

Most of those injured or killed in the strike on Tuesday were taken to Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in ambulances, private vehicles and donkey carts. Dr. Mohammed Saqer, director general of nursing at Nasser, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that 56 people had been wounded, most of them children and women. “And unfortunately nearly 10 cases of amputation among them,” he said, “hands and feet completely blown off.”

The state of the bodies brought to Nasser made it difficult to determine the number and identities of the dead, he added.

The influx of traumatic injuries came at a time when the few still-functioning hospitals in the Gaza Strip are struggling to keep running amid Israeli strikes and raids and a lack of medicine, medical equipment and reliable power. “Many of our medical staff have been detained, many have been killed and many have had to leave Gaza,” Dr. Saqer said.

There is a shortage, too, of hospital beds, and most of the airstrike victims were treated on the floors of wards or in the hallways, he said.

A video shot by the Reuters news agency at the site of the strike showed the fragment of a weapon. Two weapons experts — Trevor Ball, a former U.S. Army explosive ordnance disposal technician, and Patrick Senft, a weapons expert at the consulting firm Armament Research Services — identified the fragment as a part of a small-diameter bomb, also known as a GBU-39.

The precision-guided bomb, which is U.S.-made, weighs about 250 pounds, and is increasingly the weapon of choice for the Israeli military. Two GBU-39s were used in a deadly strike on a tent camp in Rafah on May 26.

In Gaza, such bombs “are often used to target specific floors in buildings, penetrating through the roof before detonating,” Mr. Ball said.

Although smaller in explosive power than the 2,000-pound bombs that have been used elsewhere in Gaza, the bombs “can still cause significant injury and death, especially when used in areas where there is little to no protection for people from blast and fragmentation effects, such as a street, or area with just tents,” he said.

Malachy Browne, Sanjana Varghese and Ameera Harouda contributed reporting.

Escalation between Israel and Hezbollah puts pressure on Gaza cease-fire talks.

When intelligence chiefs of United States, Israel and Egypt went to Qatar on Wednesday for talks aimed at brokering a cease-fire in Gaza, there was more on the line than Israel’s war against Hamas. The talks are being watched closely by Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon, and the question of whether a second full-blown war will erupt in Israel’s north may also hang in the balance.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made it clear on Wednesday “the only way” to stop the cross-border hostilities between his group and Israel was to negotiate an end to the fighting in Gaza. Hezbollah and Hamas are both allied with Iran in what they call “the axis of resistance,” a coalition that opposes Israel’s right to exist.

“Hamas is negotiating on its own behalf and on behalf of the entire resistance axis, and what Hamas accepts, we accept,” Mr. Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

Israeli forces and Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, who are backed by Iran, have traded fire since the war in Gaza began after Hamas led an attack on Israel on Oct. 7. About 150,000 people in northern Israel and southern Lebanon have fled their homes because of the fighting, and world leaders are worried that continued hostilities could quickly spiral into a full-fledged war that further destabilizes the already fraught region.

Mr. Nasrallah, in his speech, referred to these concerns, noting that “many delegations” from the international community have visited Lebanon to discuss defusing tensions: “We repeated the same words: If you want to stop the northern front, stop the fire in Gaza.”

But the cease-fire talks have been halting, and the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah — cross-border attacks with drones, rockets and airstrikes — has escalated in recent weeks, heightening fears that a wider war may be imminent.

On Tuesday, two Israelis — Noa and Nir Baranes, a married couple from Kibbutz Ortal in the northern Golan Heights — were killed in a Hezbollah strike on their car that the Lebanese armed group said had targeted an Israeli military base in response to an earlier Israeli “assassination” of a Hezbollah figure in Syria. The civilian deaths put additional pressure on the Israeli government to address tensions with Hezbollah, even as the Israeli military keeps returning to parts of Gaza it had previously considered pacified to suppress a resurgence of Hamas fighters.

The Israeli military said on Wednesday that its air force struck a “military site” in southern Lebanon after soldiers identified several Hezbollah operatives entering it, and that it also had targeted other Hezbollah sites nearby. Israeli government officials and military leaders have in recent weeks toured northern Israel and met with troops stationed there who were preparing for a potential escalation.

Israel has invaded Lebanon three times in the last 50 years, most recently in 2006, when the sides fought a monthlong war that killed more than 1,000 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and more than 150 in Israel, mostly soldiers.

Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, has said that a diplomatic solution to the conflict with Hezbollah is preferable. But he has also emphasized, including in talks with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd J. Austin III, in Washington late last month, that Israel is “determined to establish security” in the north and change “the reality on the ground.”

Israeli security experts are concerned that a war against Hezbollah will be more intense — and more likely to draw in other players — than the fight against Hamas.

A new report from Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies warned that “Hezbollah has the military capabilities to conduct an exceedingly protracted war, probably lasting many months, and cause severe damage to Israel” and that it could turn into “a multi-front war against Iran and its other proxies.”

The report, led by the retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Meir Elran, a senior researcher at the institute, said “there is a growing sense of futility regarding the future of the northern border.” It also noted that “public discourse has been heavily focused on the possibility of a comprehensive war with Hezbollah.”

Comprehensive war is precisely what France, the United States and others have been hoping to prevent with diplomatic visits to the region. Whether efforts at de-escalating the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah can succeed may well depend on how the cease-fire talks in Qatar progress.

On Wednesday, the C.I.A. director, Mossad chief and Egyptian intelligence head met in Qatar with the Qatari prime minister in an effort to find a peace formula both Israel and Hamas can agree on. (Egypt and Qatar have been relaying proposals to Hamas leaders.)

So far, however, Israel and Hamas disagree over a fundamental question: whether the cease-fire will be permanent or just a temporary pause to allow for an exchange of hostages taken from Israel for Palestinian prisoners.

The talks have been “progressing positively,” said Majed al-Ansari, the spokesman for Qatar’s Foreign Ministry, before the latest gathering. But, he added, “We are by no means out of the woods.”

Defeated by A.I., a Legend in the Board Game Go Warns: Get Ready for What’s Next

Lee Saedol was the finest Go player of his generation when he suffered a decisive loss, defeated not by a human opponent but by artificial intelligence.

Mr. Lee was beaten by AlphaGo, an A.I. computer program developed by Google’s DeepMind unit. The stunning upset, in 2016, made headlines around the world and looked like a clear sign that artificial intelligence was entering a new, profoundly unsettling era.

By besting Mr. Lee, an 18-time world champion revered for his intuitive and creative style of play, AlphaGo had solved one of computer science’s greatest challenges: teaching itself the abstract strategy needed to win at Go, widely considered the world’s most complex board game.

“I am very surprised because I have never thought I would lose,” Mr. Lee said at the time in a post-match news conference. “I didn’t know that AlphaGo would play such a perfect Go.”

But the implications of his loss went far beyond the game itself, in which two players compete for territory by placing black and white stones on a gridded board made up of 19 lines by 19 lines. AlphaGo’s victory demonstrated the unbridled potential of A.I. to achieve superhuman mastery of skills once considered too complicated for machines.

Mr. Lee, now 41, retired three years later, convinced that humans could no longer compete with computers at Go. Artificial intelligence, he said, had changed the very nature of a game that originated in China more than 2,500 years ago.

“Losing to A.I., in a sense, meant my entire world was collapsing,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times.

As society wrestles with what A.I. holds for humanity’s future, Mr. Lee is now urging others to avoid being caught unprepared, as he was, and to become familiar with the technology now. He delivers lectures about A.I., trying to give others the advance notice he wishes he had received before his match.

“I faced the issues of A.I. early, but it will happen for others,” Mr. Lee said recently at a community education fair in Seoul to a crowd of students and parents. “It may not be a happy ending.”

Since his loss, Mr. Lee has become an A.I. obsessive of sorts, following with rapt if uneasy attention as artificial intelligence delivers one breakthrough after another.

A.I. has helped chatbots carry on conversations almost indistinguishable from human interaction. It has solved problems that have confounded scientists for decades like predicting protein shapes. And it has blurred the lines of creativity: writing music, producing art and generating videos.

Mr. Lee is not a doomsayer. In his view, A.I. may replace some jobs, but it may create some, too. When considering A.I.’s grasp of Go, he said it was important to remember that humans both created the game and designed the A.I. system that mastered it.

What he worries about is that A.I. may change what humans value.

“People used to be in awe of creativity, originality and innovation,” he said. “But since A.I. came, a lot of that has disappeared.”

Mr. Lee started playing Go at the age of 5 under the guidance of his father, a schoolteacher and enthusiast of the game. His family lived on Bigeumdo, an island off the southwest coast of the Korean Peninsula inhabited by around 3,600 people.

His immense talent was apparent from the start. He quickly became the best player of his age not only locally but across all of South Korea, Japan and China. He turned pro at 12.

By the time he was 20, Mr. Lee had reached 9-dan, the highest level of mastery in Go. Soon, he was among the best players in the world, described by some as the Roger Federer of the game.

“He was an idol, he was a star,” said Lee Hajin, a former professional Go player. “Everyone looked up to him,” Ms. Lee added

As Mr. Lee’s standing was growing, Go started garnering interest from a new audience: computer scientists.

Go posed a tantalizing challenge for A.I. researchers. The game is exponentially more complicated than chess, with it often being said that there are more possible positions on a Go board (10 with more than 100 zeros after it, by many mathematical estimates) than there are atoms in the universe.

The breakthrough came from DeepMind, which built AlphaGo using so-called neural networks: mathematical systems that can learn skills by analyzing enormous amounts of data. It started by feeding the network 30 million moves from high-level players. Then the program played game after game against itself until it learned which moves were successful and developed new strategies.

By late 2015, AlphaGo had defeated a three-time European Go champion five straight times in a closed-door match.

Then, Mr. Lee was approached by Ms. Lee, the former professional who was working at the International Go Federation, with a proposal for a public match, with a $1 million prize for beating AlphaGo.

Mr. Lee said he accepted the offer without much thought, figuring it would be “fun.”

“But fun with the presumption that I was going to win,” he said. “The possibility of losing didn’t occur to me.”

The best-of-five match, played in Seoul, was a spectacle. In South Korea, where millions of people play Go and Mr. Lee is a celebrity, the showdown led nightly television broadcasts. More than 200 million people watched, with huge audiences in China and Japan.

During the matches, a DeepMind engineer sat across from Mr. Lee and placed the stones as relayed to him by AlphaGo. Mr. Lee said not having a true human opponent was disconcerting. AlphaGo played a style he had never seen, and it felt odd to not try to decipher what his opponent was thinking and feeling. The world watched in awe as AlphaGo pushed Mr. Lee into corners and made moves unthinkable to a human player.

“I couldn’t get used to it,” he said. “I thought that A.I. would beat humans someday. I just didn’t think it was here yet.”

AlphaGo won 4 of 5 matches. Lee Sang Hoon, his older brother and a professional Go player, remembered thinking: “This can’t be.”

“It was shocking,” said his brother, who continues to play as a professional. Like other pros, he now trains with A.I. systems that continue to learn and improve.

“Pro players are studying how these algorithms work and are trying to close the gap,” his brother said. “But we are a long way away.”

AlphaGo’s victory “was a watershed moment in the history of A.I.” said Demis Hassabis, DeepMind’s chief executive, in a written statement. It showed what computers that learn on their own from data “were really capable of,” he said.

Mr. Lee had a hard time accepting the defeat. What he regarded as an art form, an extension of a player’s own personality and style, was now cast aside for an algorithm’s ruthless efficiency.

“I could no longer enjoy the game,” he said. “So I retired.”

Mr. Lee has kept one foot in the Go world. He has written several books, including an autobiography and a series about his famous matches. He has created Go-inspired board games. He founded a Go academy for children with about a dozen branches across the country.

But A.I. dominates his thoughts, partly because of the ambivalence he feels about the pros and cons, but also because it’s a subject that hits close to home.

His 17-year-old daughter is in her final year of high school. When they discuss what she should study at university, they often consider a future shaped by A.I.

“We often talk about choosing a job that won’t be easily replaceable by A.I. or less impacted by A.I.,” he said. “It’s only a matter of time before A.I. is present everywhere.”

Cade Metz contributed reporting from San Francisco.

Rwanda Says It Doesn’t Have to Repay U.K. for Scrapped Migration Plan

Rwanda does not have to repay the hundreds of millions of pounds it received from Britain as part of a contentious policy aimed at sending migrants on a one-way flight to the Central African nation, two senior Rwandan government officials say.

Rwanda’s president had previously suggested that such money could be returned.

As part of the deal, Britain was set to give Rwanda as much as about half a billion pounds in development funding in exchange for taking in the migrants. Britain’s independent public spending watchdog said in early March that the country had already paid Rwanda £220 million, about $280 million, even though no asylum seekers had been deported to the African nation.

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A Biden Confidant Emerges as a Crucial Mideast Diplomat

A few weeks before Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, a senior White House official visited eastern Lebanon for a sightseeing trip that doubled as a dramatic political statement.

The official, Amos Hochstein, one of President Biden’s most trusted national security advisers, toured the ancient ruins of Baalbek in an area well known as a stronghold of Hezbollah, a U.S.-designated terrorist group sponsored by Iran.

Wearing white pants and a golf shirt, and with no security entourage, Mr. Hochstein marveled at the artifacts and snapped photos of the onetime Roman city’s crumbling stone walls and columns. Keeping watch from a distance were several muscular men in black T-shirts — presumed Hezbollah militiamen.

The trip caused a minor sensation in Lebanese news media, which wondered how a top American official — one born in Israel, no less — was able to move so freely on Hezbollah turf.

The trip demonstrated the surprising way Mr. Hochstein has become one of the few Americans trusted, however grudgingly, by Hezbollah’s leadership. And that trust is crucial today, now that Mr. Biden has designated Mr. Hochstein as his diplomatic point man for preventing clashes across the Israel-Lebanon border from exploding into a war that could be even more devastating than the conflict in Gaza.

Officially, Mr. Hochstein, 51, is Mr. Biden’s top aide for global energy and infrastructure. But his wonky title does not capture the ever-broadening portfolio bestowed upon him by a president whose close confidence he has earned over more than a decade and who is said to view his adviser as a results-getting “doer.”

Mr. Hochstein has made at least five trips to Israel and Lebanon since the war in Gaza prompted Hezbollah to launch rocket attacks on northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas. He speaks constantly with Lebanese officials as well as top Israeli officials, sometimes including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“He’s a very close adviser of the president,” said Edward M. Gabriel, the president of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a nonprofit organization in Washington that seeks better relations between the United States and Lebanon. “As a consequence, I think he can speak with a lot of authority when he’s in the field.”

Last week, Mr. Hochstein, who cuts a dashing profile in his slim-fitting suits and slicked-back hair, was in Paris coordinating U.S. and French efforts to bring calm to the Israel-Lebanon border. In mid-June, he saw officials in both countries, and a week later met twice in Washington with Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, with whom he speaks on a regular basis.

In addition to his work on the Israel-Hezbollah file, Mr. Hochstein has also been one of Mr. Biden’s main envoys to Saudi Arabia. He was among the U.S. officials who helped convince Mr. Biden that the United States should not ostracize Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman despite revulsion over the murder of the Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Working in tandem with a White House colleague, Brett McGurk, the top National Security Council official for Middle East affairs, he has led quiet diplomacy in pursuit of an ambitious grand bargain that would include a U.S.-Saudi security agreement and normalized diplomatic relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Mr. Hochstein has met with Prince Mohammed more than a dozen times, talks that have also included Saudi oil production plans. (Mr. Hochstein reports to and works closely with the president’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.)

A former lobbyist, congressional aide and executive at the natural gas firm Tellurian, Mr. Hochstein is passionate about renewable energy, and has trumpeted his purchase of an all-electric Ford Mustang with rooftop solar panels, although some environmental activists have complained about his background in the fossil fuel industry.

He joined the Biden administration as the State Department’s top energy official, helping to manage oil and gas market disruptions after Russia invaded Ukraine. He was reassigned to Mr. Biden’s White House staff early last year, reflecting the trust he has built with Mr. Biden over many years, including during numerous foreign trips he joined when Mr. Biden was vice president and Mr. Hochstein was a State Department energy policy official.

“President Biden likes and admires him,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who recently hosted Mr. Hochstein for an online conversation. “Anyone who can help convince President Biden that M.B.S. should move from being a pariah to a partner — that takes a lot of lifting,” he added, referring to Prince Mohammed by his initials.

Mr. Hochstein is now in the daily thick of a simmering crisis that has become one of the Biden administration’s greatest worries: that low-grade fighting between Israel and Hezbollah could escalate into a nightmare scenario that draws Iran and the United States into the conflict more directly.

Based in southern Lebanon, Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s to resist Israel’s invasion of the country. It has developed a huge arsenal of rockets and missiles capable of inflicting enormous damage on Israel’s cities.

“There is a very active mini-war going on between Israel and Lebanon,” Mr. Hochstein said during his Carnegie Endowment talk. “Thousands of rockets have been fired from Lebanon into Israel, and thousands of rounds have been shot by Israel into Lebanon.” (The White House declined to make Mr. Hochstein available for an interview.)

The fighting has driven some 60,000 Israelis from the border area and displaced 90,000 Lebanese. In remarks on July 1, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that Israel had “effectively lost sovereignty” in its north because of Hezbollah’s attacks.

In addition to striking Hezbollah positions over the past several months, Israel has also targeted some of its top commanders. A July 3 drone strike on one commander prompted a retaliatory barrage of more than 100 rockets into Israel. On Tuesday, Hezbollah said an Israeli strike in Syria killed a former bodyguard of the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah; a retaliatory attack killed two Israeli parents.

Casualties on both sides have been low relative to the fighting, Mr. Hochstein said at Carnegie. But every day without a diplomatic solution carries risk, he warned, such as an errant missile mistakenly striking a “bus full of children.”

That, he said, could lead to retaliation that triggers all-out conflict “even though both sides probably understand that a fuller or deeper-scale war is in neither side’s interest.”

Mr. Netanyahu has faced growing pressure to restore security so that displaced Israelis can return home safe from Hezbollah rockets, not to mention the now-vivid fear of an Oct. 7-style assault. U.S. officials say that as Israel scales down its campaign against a weakened Hamas in Gaza, it may turn its sights toward a possible war against Hezbollah.

Mr. Hochstein’s mission is to find a diplomatic alternative. U.S. officials say the best hope is a cease-fire in Gaza, which Hezbollah leaders say would cause them to stop their attacks. But even then, Israel would still insist that its northern border be made more secure.

So in addition to trying to restrain the two sides from major escalation, Mr. Hochstein has been negotiating a plan under which Hezbollah would pull back its forces several miles from Israel’s border — possibly in return for U.S. economic aid for southern Lebanon and changes to Israeli military positions.

Israeli officials contend that Hezbollah should be making most, if not all, of the concessions, saying the group has long been in obvious violation of a 2006 U.N. Security Council resolution that ended the last major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has flouted the resolution’s effective call that it keep its forces behind the Litani River, some 18 miles north of the Israel-Lebanon border.

While an energy and infrastructure professional like Mr. Hochstein might seem an unlikely mediator for an armed conflict, he is actually revisiting familiar territory. In 2021 and 2022, he helped Israel and Lebanon defuse another potential source of conflict, hammering out a maritime border agreement that determined the rights to lucrative undersea natural gas reserves.

Hezbollah carries strong influence with the country’s Shiite Muslim political leaders, and its assent was required to clinch the maritime deal.

What is more, Mr. Hochstein says, Lebanon has a special place in his heart.

“I fell in love with Lebanon” in 1995, Mr. Hochstein told Mr. Miller, the Carnegie senior fellow. It was his first visit, and he has returned at least once almost every year since, he said. “I’m attracted to the tragedy of Lebanon.”

During his mid-June trip, Mr. Hochstein delivered a particularly sensitive message to Hezbollah. Fearing a miscalculation, he warned its leaders not to assume that the United States could restrain Israel from launching a full-scale attack on the group, according to people familiar with the exchange.

Mr. Hochstein’s background — he is not a trained foreign service officer — has raised some eyebrows among diplomats who note that he is carrying out the sort of sensitive work typically handled by State Department regional experts.

Arab officials and media outlets also remark frequently on Mr. Hochstein’s Jewish heritage and service in the Israeli Defense Forces.

In 2021 Lebanon’s foreign minister, whose country prohibits visits by Israelis, said that he would deal with Mr. Hochstein as a U.S. envoy “and not in his Israeli capacity.” (Mr. Hochstein, born in Israel to American parents, no longer holds Israeli citizenship. He has lived in the United States since the 1990s.)

As evidenced by his trip to Baalbek, analysts say, that has not been a major problem. “He has the trust of these key interlocutors in Beirut and perhaps, one might even infer, of Hezbollah,” said Firas Maksad, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.

Because U.S. officials are barred by law from talking to members of terrorist groups, Mr. Hochstein trades messages with Hezbollah via Nabih Berri, the longtime speaker of Lebanon’s Parliament.

Analysts say that the foreign officials Mr. Hochstein speaks with respect his closeness with Mr. Biden.

And as Mr. Biden’s political standing has wavered amid doubts about his viability as the Democratic presidential nominee, Mr. Hochstein has made his own opinion clear.

After The New York Times editorial board on June 28 called on Mr. Biden to leave the race, Senator John Fetterman, Democrat of Pennsylvania, used a profanity in dismissing the editorial on social media.

Mr. Hochstein promptly reposted the message on his personal account.

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