Israel set to move on Hezbollah

Israeli firefighters put out flames in a field after rockets launched from southern Lebanon. Picture: AFP

Israeli firefighters put out flames in a field after rockets launched from southern Lebanon. Picture: AFP

Published Jun 20, 2024


Israeli air strikes and clashes between troops and Palestinian militants rocked Gaza on Wednesday, as Israel’s army warned it had readied an “offensive” against the Lebanese Hezbollah movement on the country’s northern front.

Witnesses and the civil defence agency in the Hamas-run Gaza Strip reported Israeli bombardment in western Rafah, where medics said drone strikes and shelling killed at least seven people.

The Israeli military has announced a daily humanitarian “pause” in fighting on a key road in eastern Rafah, but a UN spokesperson said days later that “this has yet to translate into more aid reaching people in need”.

More than eight months of war, sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, have led to dire humanitarian conditions in the Palestinian territory and repeated UN warnings of famine.

The Rafah border crossing between Gaza and Egypt has been shut since Israeli troops seized its Palestinian side in early May, while nearby Kerem Shalom on the Israeli border “is operating with limited functionality, including because of fighting in the area”, said UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq.

He told reporters that in recent weeks, there had been “an improvement” in aid reaching northern Gaza “but a drastic deterioration in the south. Basic commodities are available in markets in southern and central Gaza. But... it’s unaffordable for many.”

The war has sent tensions soaring across the region, with violence involving Iran-backed Hamas allies.

The Israeli military, which has traded near-daily cross border fire with Lebanon’s Hezbollah since October, said late on Tuesday that “operational plans for an offensive in Lebanon were approved and validated”.

On Wednesday, the military said its warplanes had struck Hezbollah sites in southern Lebanon overnight, while a drone had infiltrated near the border town of Metula in an attack claimed by Hezbollah and targeting troops. The Iran-backed group also announced the death of two of its fighters.

Lebanon’s official National News agency reported Israeli strikes on several areas in south Lebanon on Wednesday, including on the border village of Khiam, where there was a cloud of smoke. The army’s announcement that its plans for an offensive in Lebanon had been approved, along with a warning from Foreign Minister Israel Katz of Hezbollah’s destruction in a “total war”, came as US envoy Amos Hochstein visited the region to push for de-escalation.

Syrian state media said an Israeli strike on military sites in the country’s south killed an army officer on Wednesday.

Israel has not commented. In Gaza, Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian armed group that has fought alongside Hamas, said its militants were battling troops amid Israeli shelling of western Rafah. Witnesses reported seeing Israeli military vehicles enter the city’s Saudi neighbourhood, followed by nighttime gun battles. Parts of central Gaza also saw fighting overnight, with witnesses reporting artillery shelling and heavy gunfire in Gaza City’s Zeitun area.

US President Joe Biden has called for the implementation of a ceasefire plan he outlined last month.

Hochstein said the plan would ultimately lead to “the end of the conflict in Gaza”, which would in turn quell fighting between Israel and Hezbollah.

But US, Qatari and Egyptian mediation efforts have stalled for months since a one-week truce in November that saw dozens of hostages freed and increased aid deliveries into Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced mounting criticism at home over his handling of the Gaza war and hostage crisis, with regular mass demonstrations led by captives’ relatives and anti-government activists.

Thousands have gathered in front of parliament in Jerusalem, calling for early elections and the resumption of truce talks. Netanyahu has criticised close ally Washington for “withholding weapons and ammunitions to Israel”, in remarks rejected by the White House, whose press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said “there are no other pauses. None”.

Hochstein this week returned to Israel for more talks with Netanyahu after a series of meetings in Lebanon, according to an Israeli official.

Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, as well as three Hamas leaders, have pending arrest warrants requested against them at the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A UN report issued on Wednesday detailed six “indiscriminate and disproportionate” Israeli strikes that killed at least 218 people in the first two months of the war. It said the strikes involved “the suspected use” of heavy bombs, a shipment of which the US had paused in May over concerns Israel might use them in its Rafah assault.

Cape Times