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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 15 FEBRUARY 2024

Lebanon rocket barrage fuels Israel-Hezbollah tension; Netanyahu pulls out of ceasefire talks

Lebanon rocket barrage fuels Israel-Hezbollah tension; Netanyahu pulls out of ceasefire talks
Israeli soldiers patrol in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon on 11 February 2024. (Photo: Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Tension between Israel and Hezbollah intensified on Wednesday when Israeli towns and an army base came under what appeared to be the fiercest attacks from Lebanon since the confrontation began four months ago.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opted not to send a delegation to Cairo for follow-up talks aimed at securing a ceasefire with Hamas, again dismissing the group’s demands as “delusional”. 

Elon Musk’s Starlink won a licence to operate in Israel and parts of the Gaza Strip after agreeing to a series of measures to prevent Hamas from getting access to its satellite internet services.

Germany’s foreign minister will travel to Israel in a bid to convince Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that sending forces into Rafah could create a humanitarian disaster. 

Israel-Hezbollah tension rises after rocket barrage from Lebanon 

Tension between Israel and Hezbollah intensified on Wednesday when Israeli towns and an army base came under what appeared to be the fiercest attacks from Lebanon since the confrontation began four months ago.

The attacks, presumed to be carried out by Hezbollah, prompted Israeli fighter jets to launch extensive strikes on the Iran-backed group’s positions.

The missiles from Lebanon landed further into Israel than previous ones sent by Hezbollah. The group has been trading fire almost daily with Israel since its war with Hamas erupted on 7 October, though those skirmishes have mostly been contained to the border area.

Many Israeli politicians, including members of the Cabinet, have been urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the army to act more aggressively against Hezbollah, the most powerful militia in the Middle East. It vows to destroy the Jewish state.

One woman was killed in the Wednesday assault, Israeli media reported, while emergency services said seven were wounded. While no group has claimed responsibility for the bombardment, the missiles came from an area largely controlled by Hezbollah.

The Israel Defense Forces said its airstrikes targeted Hezbollah military compounds, control rooms and other infrastructure.

One person was killed and 10 others were wounded in a strike that damaged shops and homes in the southern Lebanese village of Adsheet, the state-run National News Agency reported. Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed.

“This isn’t just a dribble any more, this is war,” Israel’s national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who’s long advocated a more aggressive stance against Hezbollah, said. “It is time to change the way we think.”

Other officials were more measured but also implied Israel would retaliate aggressively. 

“This morning we experienced a severe attack for which the response will come soon and with strength,” said Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s war Cabinet but who heads an opposition party.  

Gantz added the Lebanese government needed to take responsibility for Hezbollah’s actions.

Lebanon is in economic crisis and legislators haven’t chosen a president for more than a year, while there’s only a prime minister in a caretaker capacity. The government has little control over Hezbollah, which is a political party as well as a militant group.

Wednesday’s flare-up coincides with threats by Israel’s military to start an offensive on Rafah, the southern Gaza city where more than one million Palestinians have taken refuge from fighting elsewhere in the enclave. Despite strong criticism from US President Joe Biden and others, Netanyahu has said Hamas has fighters in Rafah and the war can only end when the group is destroyed.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a speech on Tuesday his organisation would continue to attack Israel until it agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas.

Read more: US will face repercussions from Gaza even if it avoids wider war

“The front in south Lebanon is a pressure point through which to weaken the Zionist enemy, its economy and security,” Nasrallah said.  

The war erupted when Hamas fighters swarmed into southern Israel from Gaza on 7 October, killing 1,200 people. Israel’s retaliatory air and ground assault on Gaza has killed more than 28,500, according to the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry. Israeli officials say about 12,000 of those are Hamas fighters.

Hamas abducted about 250 people during its incursion. Roughly 100 were freed during a week-long truce that ended on 1 December and another two were freed on Monday by special forces. The Israeli military has said that of the roughly 135 captives still in Gaza, 31 are dead.

Iran backs anti-Israel and anti-US groups across the region. Together, they are often called the “axis of resistance”. They also include Yemen’s Houthis and militias in Syria and Iraq.

Israel pulls out of peace talks over ‘delusional’ Hamas demands

Netanyahu has opted not to send a delegation to Cairo for follow-up talks aimed at securing a ceasefire with Hamas, again dismissing the militant group’s demands as “delusional”.

Israel was holding out for Hamas to change its position before taking any further role in negotiations, the PM’s office said on Wednesday. The Iran-backed militant group has insisted on the total withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza in return for the release of hostages, something Netanyahu has categorically ruled out. 

Read more: Hostage rescue less vital to many Israelis than defeat of Hamas

Hamas has also called for the release of all Palestinian prisoners held in Israel, including those convicted of murder and other violence.

Israel’s delegation, led by the head of intelligence agency Mossad, David Barnea, returned from talks in Egypt on Tuesday.

“Netanyahu insists that Israel will not give in to Hamas’ delusional demands,” his office said. “A change in Hamas’s positions will allow the negotiations to advance.”

Israel’s position suggests a ceasefire, even a temporary one, remains a distant prospect as international fears grow about the fate of more than one million Palestinian refugees taking shelter in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. Israel’s military was preparing an assault on the town close to Egypt’s border, where it says Hamas’s remaining fighters are based, and Netanyahu has pledged to allow civilians out beforehand.  

Musk’s Starlink wins licence for Israel, parts of Gaza

Elon Musk’s Starlink won a licence to operate in Israel and parts of the Gaza Strip after agreeing to a series of measures to prevent Hamas from getting access to its satellite internet services.

The service will be available to some authorities in Israel and the government approved it for use at a field hospital run by the United Arab Emirates in southern Gaza, the Israeli communications ministry said on Wednesday. 

Starlink, which will begin selling terminals via an Israeli subsidiary in the coming weeks, will initially restrict sales to a list of approved clients in Israel that include local councils and government bodies.

“Units in the Gaza Strip to support humanitarian causes will be approved individually, only after Israeli security forces confirmed it to be an authorised entity with no concern of risk or possibility of endangering national security,” Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said.

Starlink’s services have been increasingly used in conflict zones to provide internet in areas where the infrastructure has been destroyed, including to military units. Musk activated the satellite service in Ukraine in the months after Russia invaded. The Ukrainian intelligence has said Russian forces are now using Starlink terminals on the frontline.

Israel will use the service for emergency backup communications, but required assurances from its parent, SpaceX, that Hamas — the group controlling Gaza that’s been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and European Union — won’t be able to access it.  

Germany ups pressure on Israel not to attack Rafah

Germany’s foreign minister will travel to Israel in a bid to convince Netanyahu that sending forces into Rafah could create a humanitarian disaster.

More than one million people fled to the southern Gaza city to seek refuge from Israel’s war against Hamas. The US, as well as European and Arab states, have voiced strong criticism of Israel’s plans to launch an offensive on Rafah. The Israeli government appears intent on pushing forward regardless.

Netanyahu has pledged to allow civilians out beforehand. Israel, which concentrated on northern parts of the Palestinian territory early in the conflict, says an attack is needed because there are many Hamas fighters in Rafah and that the war must continue until the Iran-backed militant group is destroyed.

“In Rafah, 1.3 million people are being held in a very confined space under the most terrible conditions,” Annalena Baerbock, the German foreign minister, said in a statement ahead of her trip on Wednesday. “Many of them have followed the Israeli evacuation orders and fled the combat zones in northern Gaza — often with nothing more than their children in their arms and the clothes on their backs. Under these conditions, an offensive by the Israeli army on Rafah would tip the humanitarian situation over the edge.”

Israel is yet to say when it plans to move into Rafah — though it has already launched some airstrikes on the city, killing dozens of people — or when it will open a safe corridor for people to exit.

Read more: Why Rafah is raising fears in Israel’s war with Hamas: QuickTake

“Military operations in Rafah could lead to a slaughter in Gaza,” Martin Griffiths, the United Nations’ head of humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, said on Tuesday. “They could also leave an already fragile humanitarian operation at death’s door,” he said, referring to the UN’s programmes in the territory.

Pro-Hamas hackers targeted Israeli engineers ahead of 7 October

A pro-Palestinian hacking group targeted Israeli software engineers as part of an attempt to dupe them into downloading malware weeks before the 7 October massacre, according to findings from cybersecurity researchers at Alphabet’s Google.

The attack, dubbed Blackatom, was more elaborate than those typically used by Hamas-aligned hackers, according to a Google report published on Wednesday. Targets were approached on LinkedIn and invited to download a malware-infected coding assignment via GitHub or Google Drive.

Hamas-linked hackers in September “posed as employees of a legitimate company” to lure Israel-based software engineers, promising freelance job opportunities, Kristen Dennesen, an analyst at Google’s Threat Analysis Group, said in a press conference.

In contrast with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Google did not observe a significant increase in cyber operations from Hamas-linked groups against Israeli targets before 7 October. Google also said that until now there had been no evidence of a major cyber component to Hamas’s activities during the conflict. “We saw no indication that cyber activity was integrated into Hamas battlefield operations, or that cyber was used to enable kinetic events,” the report said. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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  • Dietmar Horn says:

    South Africa has failed with an urgent application against Israel’s planned Rafah offensive at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

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