Israel 'ready to attack' if provoked by Hezbollah

WOMEN listen to a speaker during a weekly rally calling for the release of hostages who were kidnapped on Oct. 7, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024.
WOMEN listen to a speaker during a weekly rally calling for the release of hostages who were kidnapped on Oct. 7, 2023, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. AP

ISRAEL'S military on Saturday issued its most detailed warning yet to Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon that it would be "ready to attack immediately" if provoked, as it recounted its actions along the northern border during four months of war in Gaza and made a rare acknowledgement of dozens of airstrikes inside Syria against the militant group.

"We do not choose war as our first priority, but we are certainly prepared," military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said, adding: "We will continue to act wherever Hezbollah is present, we will continue to act wherever it is required in the Middle East. What is true for Lebanon is true for Syria, and is true for other more distant places."

The comments followed the defense minister's warning that a cease-fire in Gaza against the militant group Hamas wouldn't mean Israel wouldn't attack Hezbollah as needed.

Efforts to close wide gaps between Israel and Hamas in pursuit of a cease-fire continued in the region where concerns about a wider war with Iran-allied groups remain. A top Hamas official, Osama Hamdan, said they were studying the proposal put forward by the U.S., Egypt, Qatar and Israel but insist on Israel accepting conditions including a permanent cease-fire.

The war in Hamas-run Gaza has leveled vast swaths of the tiny besieged enclave, displaced 85 percent of its population and pushed a quarter of residents to starvation. The Health Ministry in Gaza said Saturday that 107 people were killed over the past 24 hours, bringing the wartime total to 27,238. More than 66,000 people have been wounded.

More deaths

In Gaza's southernmost town of Rafah, at least 17 people including women and children were killed in two separate airstrikes overnight, according to the registration office at Abu Yousef al-Najjar hospital where the bodies were taken. The first strike hit a residential building east of Rafah, killing at least 13 people from a single family. Four women and three children were among the dead, hospital officials said.

More than half of Gaza's population of 2.3 million has taken refuge in Rafah and surrounding areas.

Israel's defense minister warned earlier in the week that Israel might expand combat to Rafah after focusing on Khan Younis, southern Gaza's largest city.

While the statement alarmed aid officials and international diplomats, Israel would risk significantly disrupting relationships with the United States and neighboring Egypt if it sends troops into Rafah, a key entry point for aid.

In Khan Younis, where Israel's military said operations would continue for several days, the Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 11 people were injured when Israel's military fired smoke bombs at displaced people sheltering at its headquarters.

It followed a siege that Israel's military has laid on the Red Crescent's facilities for 12 days, the group said, adding that it had documented the killing of 43 people, including three staff members, inside the buildings by Israeli fire during that time.

Israel's military didn't address the charity's allegations of firing on the buildings, the killings or the blocking of access, and asserted that the Al-Amal Hospital facilities had adequate fuel and electricity.

Israel says it is determined to crush Hamas and prevent it from returning to power in Gaza, an enclave it has ruled since 2007, in response to its Oct. 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war.

Hamas still holds dozens of the roughly 250 hostages taken in the attack, after more than 100 were released during a one-week truce in November. Those releases were in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Thousands of people gathered again in Tel Aviv on Saturday evening for anti-government protests to express growing frustration at how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his administration have handled the war. / AP


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