Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia has fired dozens of rockets at northern Israel, warning that the barrage was its initial response to the killing – presumably by Israel – of a senior Hamas leader in Beirut earlier this week.
The rocket attack came a day after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said his group must retaliate for the killing of Saleh Arouri, the deputy political leader of the allied Hamas group.
Mr Nasrallah said that if Hezbollah does not retaliate for Mr Arouri’s killing in its stronghold south of the Lebanese capital, all of Lebanon would be vulnerable to Israeli attack.
He appeared to be making the case for a response to the Lebanese public, even at the risk of escalating the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel, but he gave no indication of how or when the militants would act.
Hezbollah said on Saturday that it had launched 62 rockets towards an air surveillance base on Mount Meron and scored direct hits.
The Israeli military said about 40 rockets were fired towards the area of Meron, but made no mention of a base. It said it had struck the cell that fired the rockets.
Separately, the armed wing of the Islamic Group in Lebanon said it had fired two volleys of rockets towards the Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona on Friday night. Two of the group’s members were killed in the strike that killed Mr Arouri.
The escalating cross-border exchanges came as US secretary of state Antony Blinken began a Middle East trip to prevent the Israel-Hamas war, now in its 14th week, from spreading across the region.
The war was triggered by a deadly Hamas attack on southern Israel in October in which militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took 250 hostages.
In recent weeks, Israel has been scaling back its military assault in the north of the territory and pressing its heavy offensive in the south, vowing to crush Hamas.
In the south, most of Gaza’s 2.3 million Palestinians are being squeezed into smaller areas in a humanitarian disaster, while still being pounded by Israeli air strikes.
On Saturday, the Health Ministry in Hamas-run Gaza said 122 Palestinians had been killed over the past 24 hours, bringing the total since the start of the war to 22,722. The count does not differentiate between combatants and civilians.
The ministry has said two-thirds of those killed have been women and children, and the overall number of wounded had risen to 58,166.
The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital in the central city of Deir al-Balah received at least 46 bodies overnight, according to hospital records seen by the Associated Press. Many were men who had apparently been shot.
Fighting has raged between Israeli forces and militants in the area.
The dead also included five members of a family killed in an air strike, the records showed.
The latest Israeli-dropped leaflets urged Palestinians in some areas near the hospital to evacuate, citing “dangerous fighting”.
In the southern city of Khan Younis, the focus of Israel’s ground offensive, the European Hospital received the bodies of 18 people killed in an overnight air strike on a house in the city’s Maan neighbourhood, said Saleh al-Hamms, head of the nursing department.
Citing witnesses, he said more than three dozen people had been sheltering in the house when it was hit.
Israel has held Hamas responsible for civilian casualties, saying the group has embedded within in Gaza’s civilian infrastructure, but international criticism of Israel’s conduct in the war has grown more persistent because of the rising civilian death toll.
The US has urged Israel to do more to prevent harm to civilians, even as it keeps sending weapons and munitions, while shielding its close ally against international censure.
Mr Blinken began his latest Middle East trip in Turkey on Saturday. The Biden administration believes Ankara and others can exert influence, particularly on Iran and its proxies, to tamp down fears of a regional conflagration.
Those fears have spiked in recent days with incidents in the Red Sea, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran.
In talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and foreign minister Hakan Fidan, Mr Blinken sought Turkish support for plans for post-war Gaza that could include monetary or in-kind contributions to reconstruction efforts and some form of participation in a proposed multinational force that could operate in or adjacent to the territory.
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