The Shiite militant group Hezbollah threatened Israel on Monday with a “firm and strong” response and said the Jewish state “will pay the price” after an Israeli airstrike reportedly killed three children in Lebanon, stoking fears of a two-front war that could plunge the Middle East into chaos.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who completed a whirlwind tour through the region on Monday, and other top Biden administration officials renewed warnings to Hezbollah, its chief state sponsor, Iran, and all other actors to stay out of the Israel–Hamas war. The conflict is entering its second month after Hamas killed more than 1,400 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostage on Oct. 7.
Meanwhile, tensions between Israel and Hezbollah are rising. Israeli officials said Sunday that their troops targeted a vehicle believed to be transporting terrorists in southern Lebanon, the home base of the militant group. Hezbollah said the Israeli operation killed an innocent woman and three children.
“The enemy will pay the price for its crimes against civilians,” Hezbollah lawmaker Hassan Fadlallah told Reuters.
Hezbollah responded to the incident by firing rockets into Israel. Israel said fire from an anti-tank missile in Lebanon on Sunday killed at least one civilian in the northern community of Kibbutz Yiftah, Israeli media reported.
At least seven Israeli soldiers and at least 50 Hezbollah fighters have reportedly been killed in clashes between the two sides since Oct. 7.
Deterring the enemy
Hezbollah is widely seen as a much more capable, well-trained and well-equipped fighting force than Hamas. A full entrance by Hezbollah would transform the conflict into a much wider war on two fronts, straining the Israeli military and stoking fears that the fight could spread across the Middle East.
On Friday, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened to unleash the full fury of his militant group against Israel. He also mocked the U.S. troops and warships dispatched to the region as a deterrent.
It’s not clear whether Hezbollah is truly considering a full-scale war with Israel or just posturing. Many in Lebanon and the Hamas leadership expressed disappointment that Mr. Nasrallah’s comments were not more forceful.
Either way, Hezbollah leaders risk sparking a significant escalation by ratcheting up aggressive rhetoric, some analysts say.
“In raising the stakes, Hezbollah is playing with fire, getting dangerously close to the point of no return,” said former Israeli intelligence official and regional analyst Avi Melamed.
“Its rockets are very carefully targeting the communities north of Haifa, knowing full well that Israel will not tolerate a direct hit on Haifa, and that if rockets were to hit the city, the IDF would respond more significantly than anything Hezbollah has experienced thus far in this war,” he said in an analysis circulated to reporters.
The U.S. is ramping up its own deterrence efforts. The Pentagon on Monday confirmed that an Ohio-class submarine was operating in the Middle East. Social media images appeared to show the craft passing through the Suez Canal near the Suez Canal Bridge, about 100 miles northeast of Cairo. The submarine joins two aircraft carrier strike groups and other U.S. military assets in the region.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said they would introduce a nonbinding resolution calling on the U.S. to strike Iran directly if Hezbollah, which received economic and security support from Tehran, opens a second front in the war. That resolution underscores the seriousness with which U.S. policymakers are taking the prospects of a broad Middle East conflict.
“The resolution puts Iran on notice that all this military force in the region will be coming after you if you expand this war by activating Hezbollah or killing an American through your proxies in Syria and Iraq,” Mr. Graham told CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Sunday. “They need to hear that. They need to believe that.”
In the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military has been systematically targeting the elaborate series of tunnels that Hamas used to carry out its Oct. 7 terrorist attack.
Israel pounded Hamas targets with more airstrikes Monday while effectively severing northern Gaza from the rest of the enclave by surrounding Gaza City. Israeli forces are expected to begin a fierce ground campaign, potentially introducing some of the region’s most gruesome fighting in decades.
Meanwhile, international officials say the humanitarian situation in Gaza is deteriorating rapidly. The Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza reported that the death toll had passed 10,000, though outside organizations have not verified those exact figures. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pressed for a humanitarian cease-fire.
“The nightmare in Gaza is more than a humanitarian crisis. It is a crisis of humanity,” he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York. “The unfolding catastrophe in Gaza makes the need for a humanitarian cease-fire more urgent with every passing hour.”
President Biden spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House said in a readout of the call that the two men “discussed the possibility of tactical pauses to provide civilians with opportunities to safely depart from areas of ongoing fighting, to ensure assistance is reaching civilians in need, and to enable potential hostage releases.”
After his trip through the region, Mr. Blinken told reporters that Washington is working to secure the release of Hamas hostages while looking to minimize suffering in Gaza. The Netanyahu government has resisted international calls for a cease-fire, arguing it would only help dug-in Hamas fighters.
“Look, we know the deep concern here for the terrible toll that Gaza is taking on Palestinians — on men, women, and children in Gaza, innocent civilians — a concern that we share and that we’re working on every single day,” Mr. Blinken said during a stop in Turkey. “We’ve engaged the Israelis on steps that they can take to minimize civilian casualties.”
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