Lebanon's Hezbollah rains 200 rockets on Israel as Gaza war rages

Palestinians on a donkey cart in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on July 3, 2024 (Eyad BABA)
Palestinians on a donkey cart in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on July 3, 2024 (Eyad BABA)

Lebanon's Hezbollah launched a barrage of more than 200 rockets and drones at Israeli army positions on Thursday as tensions soared amid the almost nine-month-old war raging in Gaza.

The Iran-backed militant group said its latest attack, which followed over 100 rockets fired the previous day, came in response to Israel's killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in south Lebanon.

Israel reported no deaths in its northern border area, where most communities have been evacuated, but quickly said it had responded with strikes in southern Lebanon.

Israel and Hezbollah, an ally of Palestinian militant group Hamas, have exchanged near daily cross-border fire since the Gaza war erupted on October 7, stoking fears of an escalation into all-out war.

UN chief Antonio Guterres voiced concern Wednesday "about the escalation of the exchange of fire", his spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, warning of the risk to the wider Middle East "if we were to find ourselves in a full-fledged conflict".

Hezbollah and Hamas are part of an Iran-led "Axis of Resistance" against Israel and the United States, a regional alliance that also includes Yemen's Huthi rebels and armed groups in Iraq and Syria.

The Israeli military confirmed Hezbollah claims that over 200 rockets were launched on Thursday and said that its forces were "striking launch posts in southern Lebanon" in response.

Israeli air defences intercepted most incoming rockets, and the only reported casualty was a man slightly wounded by shrapnel, while some of the impacts sparked wildfires.

Israel killed senior Hezbollah commander Mohammed Naameh Nasser with a strike in the Lebanese coastal city of Tyre on Wednesday.

A source close to the group described him as "responsible for one of three sectors in south Lebanon". His death came after an Israeli strike in June killed Taleb Abdallah, who headed another sector.

Speaking at Nasser's funeral, top Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine warned Israel against "imagining that targeting these heroes would ever leave the south exposed".

"When any leader becomes a martyr, another takes up the banner and proceeds with new, firm and strong resolve."

- Heavy battles rock Gaza -

The Gaza war broke out after Hamas's October 7 attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza including 42 the army says are dead.

Israel's retaliatory offensive has killed at least 38,011 people, also mostly civilians, according to figures from the Hamas-run territory's health ministry.

The Israel-Hezbollah border clashes have killed at least 496 people in Lebanon, most of them fighters but also including 95 civilians, according to an AFP tally.

Israeli authorities say at least 15 soldiers and 11 civilians have been killed on their side of the UN-patrolled border.

The Gaza war at the heart of the tensions has meanwhile raged on, and gun battles, air strikes and shelling rocked Gaza City for an eight day on Thursday.

Israeli troops "destroyed tunnel routes in the area and eliminated dozens of terrorists in close-quarters combat with tank fire, and in aerial strikes," the military said.

Gaza's civil defence agency said at least five people were killed in a strike that hit a Gaza City school.

Fears of renewed heavy fighting have also surged in southern areas near Khan Yunis and Rafah after the military on Monday issued a sweeping evacuation order that the UN said impacted 250,000 people.

- Efforts towards truce -

Israel has faced an international outcry over the soaring civilian death toll, punishing siege and mass destruction in Gaza.

The UN humanitarian coordinator for Gaza, Sigrid Kaag, this week called for an end to the "maelstrom of human misery".

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted Israel will destroy Hamas and bring home the remaining hostages.

US President Joe Biden, under growing domestic pressure over Washington's support for Israel, in late May outlined a roadmap for a six-week truce and exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners.

There has been little progress since, but Hamas said Wednesday it was communicating with officials in Qatar and Egypt as well as Turkey with an eye to ending the conflict.

Hamas said its Qatar-based political chief Ismail Haniyeh had "made contact with the mediator brothers in Qatar and Egypt about the ideas that the movement is discussing with them with the aim of reaching an agreement".

Netanyahu's office said Wednesday that "Israel is evaluating the (Hamas) remarks and will convey its reply to the mediators".

The main stumbling block so far has centred on Hamas's demand for a permanent end to the fighting, which Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners strongly reject.