Thursday, May 23, 2024

As Israel pounded targets in the Gaza Strip from the air and sea on Wednesday, a member of the country’s war cabinet threatened action on a second front, along the border with Lebanon, where the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah has fired rocket barrages into Israel.

“I say to our friends around the world: The situation in the northern border necessitates change,” the war cabinet member, Benny Gantz, told reporters. “The time for a diplomatic solution is running out. If the world and the government of Lebanon don’t act to stop the fire toward northern communities and to push Hezbollah away from the border, the I.D.F. will do that.” The reference was to the Israel Defense Forces.

The threat of a wider war has preoccupied the United States and its allies since the start of the conflict in Gaza, and has only grown as three Iranian-backed groups — Hamas, Hezbollah and Houthis in Yemen — launch attacks toward Israel as well as on commercial ships in the Red Sea. The concern prompted the United States to dispatch two aircraft carriers to the Eastern Mediterranean in the weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attacks on Israel that sparked the war in Gaza.

The Israeli military said Wednesday that its northern command, along the border with Lebanon, was in a “state of very high readiness.” The military’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said, “We need to be prepared to strike if required.”

Tensions rose even higher this week after Iran accused Israel of killing Brig. Gen. Sayyed Razi Mousavi, a senior adviser to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, in a missile strike in Syria. On Wednesday, a cortège of mourners accompanied his body through the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, and a representative of the Revolutionary Guard, Ramezan Sharif, again threatened retaliation against Israel, The Associated Press reported.

Hints of division among Israel’s adversaries emerged on Wednesday when Mr. Sharif claimed that Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack was prompted not by longstanding grievances with Israel but for the 2020 killing of Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, head of Iran’s elite Quds Force, in a U.S. drone strike in Iraq. Hamas promptly rejected the suggestion.

American officials have been wary that tit-for-tat attacks in the region could escalate into a larger, regional fight, but early on Tuesday, the United States conducted a round of airstrikes in Iraq on facilities it said were being used by Iranian proxies. The strikes followed a series of attacks by the militants in Iraq, including a drone attack hours earlier on an Erbil air base in which three American service members were injured.

An Israeli official said Wednesday that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken plans to visit Israel in early January to discuss the war in Gaza and plans for how the Palestinian territory will be governed when the conflict ends. The visit will be Mr. Blinken’s fourth to the region since the Oct. 7 attacks. On each of his earlier trips, Mr. Blinken has also stopped in several Arab capitals.

Israel has been under pressure by European governments and the United Nations to agree to an immediate cease-fire, but with Hamas and Israel staking out seemingly intractable conditions in public, diplomats said it appeared that a deal for a lasting truce remained far off.

In Israel on Wednesday, a day after the Israeli military said it had expanded operations in central areas of Gaza, air raid sirens sounded along the border at least three times — a measure of the seeming durability of Hamas’s capabilities to fight and threaten Israel.

Since the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel, which killed an estimated 1,200 people, Hamas and other armed groups have fired about 12,000 rockets from Gaza into Israel, a quarter of them on Oct. 7, according to the Israeli government. Israel has hit Gaza with a near-relentless barrage of strikes, killing what health officials say is more than 20,000 people.

More than 11 weeks after the Hamas-led attack that set off the war, the Gazan Health Ministry said Wednesday that Israel had returned the bodies of 80 Palestinians to Gaza.

Reporting was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Ben Hubbard, Michael Crowley and Johanna Reiss.

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