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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 16 FEBRUARY 2024

Israel-Hezbollah deadly conflict escalates; US intercepts Iranian weapons headed for Houthis

Israel-Hezbollah deadly conflict escalates; US intercepts Iranian weapons headed for Houthis
An armed Houthi fighter looks at a banner depicting portraits of slain Houthi fighters on a street in Sana’a, Yemen, on 15 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Yahya Arhab)

Hezbollah in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets at Israel in retaliation for the killing of a commander in one of the group’s elite units, a further escalation of this week’s cross-border fire that’s raising fears of a wider war.

The US Coast Guard seized a shipment of weapons from Iran in the Persian Gulf that was headed to Houthi rebels in Yemen, the US announced on Thursday.

Three long-time supporters of Israel and key US allies issued a joint statement warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against a planned offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, as international calls for a ceasefire mount.

Israel, Hezbollah strikes intensify as fears grow of wider war

Hezbollah in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets at Israel in retaliation for the killing of a commander in one of the group’s elite units, a further escalation of this week’s cross-border fire that’s raising alarm of a wider war.

A senior member of the Iran-backed group’s elite Radwan Force was killed on Wednesday along with two others in the southern Lebanese town of Nabatiyeh, the Israeli army said Thursday. Hezbollah responded by firing dozens of rockets into northern Israel. 

Concerns of a war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Middle East’s most powerful militia, have been rising since the 7 October attack by Hamas on Israel that sparked the war in Gaza. Both Hezbollah and Hamas are supported by Iran and considered terrorist organisations by the US.

An escalation in the Hezbollah conflict would engage the Jewish state in a second deadly front and have the potential to further devastate Lebanon, a country already struggling with a severe economic crisis and an essentially powerless government.

The Israel Defense Forces said the targeted Hezbollah commander, Ali Al Dabs, planned and carried out attacks against Israel, including one in the north early last year. His killing was part of a series of strikes by Israel on Wednesday in response to rockets suspected of being fired by Hezbollah. 

An Israeli soldier was killed in that earlier barrage, which hit the town of Safed and an army base about 15km from the border with Lebanon, deeper than any previous attack. While Hezbollah didn’t claim responsibility for that strike, the attack came from an area controlled by the group. Israel’s retaliatory fire killed at least eight people including women and children, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said.

Hezbollah said on Thursday it also hit four army posts along the border with Israel including what it said was surveillance equipment, according to separate statements. Israel has also struck several villages in south Lebanon.

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

Nicolas Nahhas, an adviser to Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, said his country’s authorities have little, if any, control over Hezbollah and that the attacks are needlessly provoking Israel’s Netanyahu.  

The spokesperson for the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Lebanon, Andrea Tenenti, said events in recent days “are a worrying shift in the exchange of fire”, including attacks far beyond the so-called Blue Line, the boundary set by the UN.

US intercepts Iranian weapons intended for Houthi rebels

The US Coast Guard seized a shipment of weapons from Iran in the Persian Gulf that was headed to Houthi rebels in Yemen, the US announced on Thursday.

The US Central Command (Centcom) said when its forces boarded the ship, they found more than 200 packages of a variety of lethal equipment including medium-range ballistic missile components, explosives and anti-tank guided missile launcher assemblies intended to support the Houthis.

“This is yet another example of Iran’s malign activity in the region,” said General Michael Erik Kurilla, Centcom commander. “Their continued supply of advanced conventional weapons to the Houthis is in direct violation of international law and continues to undermine the safety of international shipping and the free flow of commerce.”

The Houthis started assaults on commercial shipping in mid-November 2023 and say they’re targeting ships linked to Israel and its allies to pressure them over the war in Gaza. Many shipping companies have been rerouting vessels around the southern tip of Africa, a lengthier and costlier journey.

The Houthis, along with Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and other groups in Iraq and Syria, are part of Tehran’s so-called axis of resistance.

Key US allies warn Israel against planned offensive in Rafah

Three long-time supporters of Israel and key US allies issued a joint statement warning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against a planned offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, as international calls for a ceasefire mount.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand said on Thursday that they were “gravely concerned” about a potential operation by the Israel Defense Forces in Rafah, adding the impact on civilians would be “devastating”.

More than one million people fled to the southern Gaza city on the border with Egypt to seek refuge from Israel’s war against Hamas. The US, European Union and Arab states have voiced strong criticism of the potential offensive.

Israel appears intent on pushing forward as it tries to destroy Hamas. Israeli officials say Rafah is key to their operations in Gaza because it still harbours Hamas fighters. They’ve said they will allow civilians to leave the city before any assault.

“We urge the Israeli government not to go down this path,” the three nations said, calling instead for a sustainable ceasefire. “There is simply nowhere else for civilians to go.”

The statement was signed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon. It comes a few days after US President Joe Biden urged Netanyahu to not go ahead with a military operation in Rafah without a “credible and executable plan” to shield civilians.

Australia’s foreign minister, Penny Wong, told a Senate hearing in Canberra earlier on Thursday that any Israeli operation in Rafah was “unjustifiable”. Australia’s “message to Israel is: ‘Listen to the world. Do not go down this path,’” she said.

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, arrived in Israel on Wednesday to tell officials, including Netanyahu, that an attack on Rafah could create a humanitarian disaster.

“I have repeated here that people cannot simply vanish into thin air,” she said to German broadcaster ZDF on Wednesday. “Protective corridors are needed, safe places are needed where all these people can find refuge after they have left northern Gaza at the request of the Israeli army. We talked about this intensively today.”

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.

The war in Gaza erupted when Hamas attacked southern Israel from Gaza on 7 October, killing 1,200 people.  More than 28,000 have been killed by Israel’s retaliatory air and ground assault on Gaza, according to health officials in the Hamas-run territory.

Hamas abducted around 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. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War

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