Airstrikes are unlikely to deter the Houthis

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

TEL AVIV — In a preemptive bid to warn off Iran and its proxies in the wake of Hamas’ October attacks on southern Israel, United States President Joe Biden had succinctly said: “Don’t.” But his clipped admonition continues to fall on deaf ears.

As Shakespeare’s rueful King Claudius notes, “when sorrows come, they come not single spies but in battalions.” And while exasperated Western powers now try to halt escalation in the Middle East, it is the Iran-directed battalions that are bringing them sorrows.

Raising the stakes at every turn, Tehran is carefully calibrating the aggression of its partners — Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria, and the Houthis in the Red Sea —ratcheting up to save Hamas from being destroyed by a vengeful Israel. And out of all this needling, it is the Houthis’ more then two dozen attacks in the Red Sea that crossed the line for Western powers — enough to goad the U.S. and the United Kingdom into switching from a defensive posture to launching strikes on dozens of Houthi targets.

As far as Washington and London are concerned, Western retaliation is meant to give teeth to Biden’s October warning, conveying a clear message to Iran: Stop. But why would it?

Privately, the U.S. has reinforced its warning through diplomatic channels. And U.K. Defense Minister Grant Shapps underscored the message publicly, saying the West is “running out of patience,” and the Iranian regime must tell the Houthis and its regional proxies to “cease and desist.”

Nonetheless, it’s highly questionable whether Tehran will heed this advice. There’s nothing in the regime’s DNA to suggest it would back off. Plus, there would be no pain for Iran at the end of it all — the Houthis would be on the receiving end. In fact, Iran has every reason to persist, as it can’t afford to leave Hamas in the lurch. To do so would undermine the confidence of other Iran-backed groups, weakening its disruptive clout in the region.

Also, from Iran’s perspective, its needling strategy of fatiguing and frightening Western powers with the prospect of escalation is working. The specter of a broadening war in the Middle East is terrifying for Washington and European governments, which are beset by other problems. Better for them to press Israel to halt its military campaign in Gaza and preserve the power of Hamas — that’s what Tehran is trying to engineer.

And Iranian mullahs have every reason to think this wager will pay off. Ukraine is becoming a cautionary tale; Western resolve seems to be waning; and the U.S. Congress is mired in partisan squabbling, delaying a crucial aid package for Ukraine — one the Europeans won’t be able to make good on.

So, whose patience will run out first — the West or Iran and its proxies?

Wearing down the Houthis would be no mean feat for the U.S. and the U.K. In 2015, after the resilient Houthis had seized the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, Saudi Arabia thought it could quickly dislodge them with a bombing campaign in northern Yemen. But nearly a decade on, Riyadh is trying to extricate itself, ready to walk away if the Houthis just leave them alone.

The United Arab Emirates was more successful in the country’s south, putting boots on the ground and training local militias in places where the Houthis were already unpopular. But the U.S. and the U.K. aren’t proposing to follow the UAE model — they’ll be following the Saudi one, albeit with the much more limited goal of getting the Houthis to stop harassing commercial traffic in the Red Sea.

Moreover, Western faith in the efficacy of bombing campaigns — especially fitful ones — has proven misplaced before. Bombing campaigns failed to bring Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to heel on their own. And Iran-aligned militias in Iraq and Syria have shrugged off Western airstrikes, seeing them as badges of honor — much like the Houthis, who, ironically, were removed from the U.S. terror list by Biden in 2021. They seem to be relishing their moment in the big leagues.

War-tested, battle-hardened and agile, the Houthis are well-equipped thanks to Iran, and they can expect military replenishment from Tehran. They also have a firm grip on their territory. Like Hamas, the Houthis aren’t bothered by the death and destruction they may bring down on their people, making them particularly difficult to cajole into anything. And if the U.S. is to force the pace, it may well be dragged in deeper, as the only way to stop Iran replenishing the Houthis would be to mount a naval blockade of Yemen.

Few seasoned analysts think the Houthis will cave easily. Tom Sharpe, a former Royal Navy captain and specialist anti-air warfare officer, said he’d suggest “just walk[ing] away.”

“Make going round the Cape the new normal,” he wrote last week, albeit acknowledging he’d expect his advice to be overruled due to the global economic implications. But degrading the Houthis enough to make the Red Sea safe again, he noted, would be “difficult to do without risking a wider regional conflict in which the U.S., U.K. and friends would be seen as fighting on the Israeli side.”

And that is half the problem. Now ensnared in the raging conflict, in the eyes of many in the region, Western powers are seen as enabling the death and destruction being visited on Gaza. And as the civilian death toll in the Palestinian enclave mounts, Israel’s Western supporters are increasingly being criticized for not doing enough to restrain the country, which is determined to ensure Hamas can never repeat what it did on October 7.

Admittedly, Israel is combating a merciless foe that is heedless of the Gazan deaths caused by its actions. The more Palestinians killed, the greater the international outrage Hamas can foment, presenting itself as victim rather than aggressor. But Israel has arguably fallen into Hamas’ trap, with the mounting deaths and burgeoning humanitarian crisis now impacting opinion in the region and more widely.

A recent poll conducted for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found that 96 percent of the broader Arab world believe Arab nations should now sever ties with Israel. And in Britain, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told a parliamentary panel he feared Israel has “taken action that might be in breach of international law.”

Meanwhile, in addition to issuing warnings to Iran, Hezbollah, and others in the Axis of Resistance to stay out of it, Biden has also cautioned Israeli leaders about wrath — urging the Israeli war Cabinet not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

However, according to a poll by the Israel Democracy Institute, 75 percent of Jewish Israelis think the country should ignore U.S. demands to shift to a phase of war with reduced heavy bombing in populous areas, and 57 percent support opening a second front in the north and taking the fight to Hezbollah. Additionally, Gallup has found Israelis have lost faith in a two-state solution, with 65 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing an independent Palestinian state.

So, it looks as though Israel is in no mood to relent — and doesn’t believe it can afford to.

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Missile from Lebanon kills two Israeli civilians as Israel-Hamas war rages for 100th day

An anti-tank missile fired from Lebanon hit a home in northern Israel on Sunday, killing two civilians and renewing concerns about the risk of a second front erupting in the Israel-Hamas war.

The deadly strike near the border came on the 100th day of the conflict between Israel and Hamas that has killed nearly 24,000 Palestinians, devastated vast swaths of Gaza, driven around 85% of the territory’s 2.3 million residents from their homes and pushed a quarter of the population into starvation.

The war was triggered by Hamas’ Oct. 7 surprise attack into southern Israel in which militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and took around 250 hostages, about half of whom are still in captivity.

Since then, tensions have soared across the region, with Israel trading fire almost daily with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group and Iranian-backed militias attacking U.S. targets in Syria and Iraq. In addition, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have been targeting international shipping, drawing a wave of U.S. airstrikes last week.

Also read: Israel-Hamas war | Timeline of major events from the first 100 days

Sunday’s missile strike came a day after the Israeli army said it killed three militants who tried to infiltrate Israel.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said his group won’t stop until a cease-fire is in place for Gaza.

“We are continuing, and our front is inflicting losses on the enemy and putting pressure on displaced people,” Nasrallah said in a speech, referring to the tens of thousands of Israelis who have fled northern border areas.

The unprecedented level of death and destruction in Gaza has led South Africa to lodge allegations of genocide against Israel at the International Court of Justice. Israel denies the accusations and has vowed to press ahead with its offensive even if the court in The Hague issues an interim order for it to stop.

Israel has also vowed to return the more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza as Israeli leaders have faced mounting protests from hostages’ families, including a 24-hour rally in Tel Aviv that began Saturday evening and drew tens of thousands of supporters.

Israel and Hezbollah have been careful not to allow their back-and-forth fighting to erupt into full-blown war on a second front.

But they have come close on several occasions — most recently in the aftermath of an airstrike that killed a top Hamas official in Beirut on Jan. 2. Hamas and Hezbollah have both blamed Israel for the strike.

The latest attacks on Israel, including the deaths of the two civilians on Sunday, raised the likelihood of new Israeli reprisals. Late Sunday, the Israeli military said it had carried out a series of strikes on Hezbollah targets in Lebanon.

The army’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, said Israel would not tolerate attacks on civilians.

“The price will be extracted not just tonight, but also in the future,” Hagari said.

Earlier Sunday, the Lebanese missile hit a home in the town of Yuval, killing a man in his 40s and his mother, who was in her 70s, Israeli rescuers said.

Although Yuval is one of more than 40 towns along the northern border evacuated by the government in October, Israeli media reported that the family stayed in the area because they work in agriculture.

More than 115,000 Israelis have evacuated from northern Israel due to the ongoing tensions.

The deadly strike came hours after the army said it killed three militants who entered a disputed Israeli-controlled enclave in the Golan Heights.

A group called Islamic Glory Brigades claimed responsibility for the infiltration. The Associated Press could not independently verify the statement, and Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad all said the group was not affiliated with them.

Tensions have also spread to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where Palestinian health officials say nearly 350 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in confrontations throughout the war.

On Sunday, the Israeli army said troops opened fire after a Palestinian car breached a military roadblock in the southern West Bank and an attacker fired at soldiers. Palestinian health officials said two Palestinians were killed.

Israel has also been under growing international pressure to end the war in Gaza, but it has so far been shielded by U.S. diplomatic and military support. Israel argues that any cease-fire would hand victory to Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and is bent on Israel’s destruction.

Thousands took to the streets of Washington, London, Paris, Rome, Milan and Dublin on Saturday to demand an end to the war. Protesters converging on the White House held aloft signs criticizing President Joe Biden’s unwavering support for Israel.

In recent weeks, Israel has scaled back operations in northern Gaza, the initial target of the offensive, where weeks of airstrikes and ground operations left entire neighborhoods in ruins. Netanyahu said there are no immediate plans to allow hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to return to their homes there, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue during a visit to the region last week.

Meanwhile, Israel has launched major operations against the southern city of Khan Younis and built-up refugee camps in central Gaza.

“No one is able to move,” said Rami Abu Matouq, who lives in the Maghzai camp. “Warplanes, snipers and gunfire are everywhere.”

In the central town of Deir al-Balah, health officials said at least 15 people were killed in Israeli strikes late Saturday.

At the entrance of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital, men lined up to pray for the dead, their bodies wrapped in white shrouds. The bodies were put on the back of a pickup truck before they were taken to be buried.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian TV station Al-Ghad said a cameraman was killed in an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza. The channel said Yazan al-Zwaidi was apparently in a crowd of people at the time. Details were not immediately available, and the Israeli military had no comment.

Meanwhile, the internet advocacy group Netblocks said communications in Gaza were still out after a 48-hour outage. The Palestinian telecommunications operator in Gaza, Jawwal, said two of its employees were killed Saturday when they were hit by a shell while fixing lines in Khan Younis.

Netanyahu said Israel would eventually need to push further south and take control of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which Israeli officials say is still used by Hamas to smuggle in arms.

Egypt — which in recent years has fortified the border, demolished tunnels and established a buffer zone — insists it has full control of the border and that any such operation would have to be considered in light of agreements with Israel and the United States.

The area in and around the border town of Rafah is also packed with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled from other parts of Gaza and are crowded into overflowing U.N.-run shelters and tent camps.

The Gaza Health Ministry said Sunday that hospitals had received 125 bodies in the last 24 hours, bringing the overall death toll to 23,968. The ministry does not differentiate between civilians and combatants but says around two-thirds of the dead are women and minors. It says over 60,000 people have been wounded.

Israel says Hamas is responsible for the high civilian casualties, saying its fighters make use of civilian buildings and launch attacks from densely populated urban areas. The military says 189 soldiers have been killed and 1,099 wounded since the start of the ground offensive.

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The Middle East is on fire: What you need to know about the Red Sea crisis

On October 7, Hamas fighters launched a bloody attack against Israel, using paragliders, speedboats and underground tunnels to carry out an offensive that killed almost 1,200 people and saw hundreds more taken back to the Gaza Strip as prisoners. 

Almost three months on, Israel’s massive military retaliation is reverberating around the region, with explosions in Lebanon and rebels from Yemen attacking shipping in the Red Sea. Meanwhile, Western countries are pumping military aid into Israel while deploying fleets to protect commercial shipping — risking confrontation with the Iranian navy.

That’s in line with a grim prediction made last year by Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, who said that Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza meant an “expansion of the scope of the war has become inevitable,” and that further escalation across the Middle East should be expected. 

What’s happening?

The Israel Defense Forces are still fighting fierce battles for control of the Gaza Strip in what officials say is a mission to destroy Hamas. Troops have already occupied much of the north of the 365-square-kilometer territory, home to around 2.3 million Palestinians, and are now fighting fierce battles in the south.

Entire neighborhoods of densely-populated Gaza City have been levelled by intense Israeli shelling, rocket attacks and air strikes, rendering them uninhabitable. Although independent observers have been largely shut out, the Hamas-controlled Health Ministry claims more than 22,300 people have been killed, while the U.N. says 1.9 million people have been displaced.

On a visit to the front lines, Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant warned that his country is in the fight for the long haul. “The feeling that we will stop soon is incorrect. Without a clear victory, we will not be able to live in the Middle East,” he said.

As the Gaza ground war intensifies, Hamas and its allies are increasingly looking to take the conflict to a far broader arena in order to put pressure on Israel.

According to Seth Frantzman, a regional analyst with the Jerusalem Post and adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, “Iran is certainly making a play here in terms of trying to isolate Israel [and] the U.S. and weaken U.S. influence, also showing that Israel doesn’t have the deterrence capabilities that it may have had in the past or at least thought it had.”

Northern front

On Tuesday a blast ripped through an office in Dahieh, a southern suburb of the Lebanese capital, Beirut — 130 kilometers from the border with Israel. Hamas confirmed that one of its most senior leaders, Saleh al-Arouri, was killed in the strike. 

Government officials in Jerusalem have refused to confirm Israeli forces were behind the killing, while simultaneously presenting it as a “surgical strike against the Hamas leadership” and insisting it was not an attack against Lebanon itself, despite a warning from Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati that the incident risked dragging his country into a wider regional war. 

Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have spiked in recent weeks, with fighters loyal to Hezbollah, the Shia Islamist militant group that controls the south of the country, firing hundreds of rockets across the frontier. Along with Hamas, Hezbollah is part of the Iranian-led “Axis of Resistance” that aims to destroy the state of Israel.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry said the death of al-Arouri, the most senior Hamas official confirmed to have died since October 7, will only embolden resistance against Israel, not only in the Palestinian territories but also in the wider Middle East.

“We’re talking about the death of a senior Hamas leader, not from Hezbollah or the [Iranian] Revolutionary Guards. Is it Iran who’s going to respond? Hezbollah? Hamas with rockets? Or will there be no response, with the various players waiting for the next assassination?” asked Héloïse Fayet, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations.

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday evening, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah condemned the killing but did not announce a military response.

Red Sea boils over

For months now, sailors navigating the narrow Bab- el-Mandeb Strait that links Europe to Asia have faced a growing threat of drone strikes, missile attacks and even hijackings by Iran-backed Houthi militants operating off the coast of Yemen.

The Houthi movement, a Shia militant group supported by Iran in the Yemeni civil war against Saudi Arabia and its local allies, insists it is only targeting shipping with links to Israel in a bid to pressure it to end the war in Gaza. However, the busy trade route from the Suez Canal through the Red Sea has seen dozens of commercial vessels targeted or delayed, forcing Western nations to intervene.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Navy said it had intercepted two anti-ship missiles and sunk three boats carrying Houthi fighters in what it said was a hijacking attempt against the Maersk Hangzhou, a container ship. Danish shipping giant Maersk said Tuesday that it would “pause all transits through the Red Sea until further notice,” following a number of other cargo liners; energy giant BP is also suspending travel through the region.

On Wednesday the Houthis targeted a CMA CGM Tage container ship bound for Israel, according to the group’s military spokesperson Yahya Sarea. “Any U.S. attack will not pass without a response or punishment,” he added. 

“The sensible decision is one that the vast majority of shippers I think are now coming to, [which] is to transit through round the Cape of Good Hope,” said Marco Forgione, director general at the Institute of Export & International Trade. “But that in itself is not without heavy impact, it’s up to two weeks additional sailing time, adds over £1 million to the journey, and there are risks, particularly in West Africa, of piracy as well.” 

However, John Stawpert, a senior manager at the International Chamber of Shipping, noted that while “there has been disruption” and an “understandable nervousness about transiting these routes … trade is continuing to flow.”

“A major contributory factor to that has been the presence of military assets committed to defending shipping from these attacks,” he said. 

The impacts of the disruption, especially price hikes hitting consumers, will be seen “in the next couple of weeks,” according to Forgione. Oil and gas markets also risk taking a hit — the price of benchmark Brent crude rose by 3 percent to $78.22 a barrel on Wednesday. Almost 10 percent of the world’s oil and 7 percent of its gas flows through the Red Sea.

Western response

On Wednesday evening, the U.S., Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom issued an ultimatum calling the Houthi attacks “illegal, unacceptable, and profoundly destabilizing,” but with only vague threats of action.

“We call for the immediate end of these illegal attacks and release of unlawfully detained vessels and crews. The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways,” the statement said.

Despite the tepid language, the U.S. has already struck back at militants from Iranian-backed groups such as Kataeb Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria after they carried out drone attacks that injured U.S. personnel.

The assumption in London is that airstrikes against the Houthis — if it came to that — would be U.S.-led with the U.K. as a partner. Other nations might also chip in.

Two French officials said Paris is not considering air strikes. The country’s position is to stick to self-defense, and that hasn’t changed, one of them said. French Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu confirmed that assessment, saying on Tuesday that “we’re continuing to act in self-defense.” 

“Would France, which is so proud of its third way and its position as a balancing power, be prepared to join an American-British coalition?” asked Fayet, the think tank researcher.

Iran looms large

Iran’s efforts to leverage its proxies in a below-the-radar battle against both Israel and the West appear to be well underway, and the conflict has already scuppered a long-awaited security deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

“Since 1979, Iran has been conducting asymmetrical proxy terrorism where they try to advance their foreign policy objectives while displacing the consequences, the counterpunches, onto someone else — usually Arabs,” said Bradley Bowman, senior director of Washington’s Center on Military and Political Power. “An increasingly effective regional security architecture, of the kind the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are trying to build, is a nightmare for Iran which, like a bully on the playground, wants to keep all the other kids divided and distracted.”

Despite Iran’s fiery rhetoric, it has stopped short of declaring all-out war on its enemies or inflicting massive casualties on Western forces in the region — which experts say reflects the fact it would be outgunned in a conventional conflict.

“Neither Iran nor the U.S. nor Israel is ready for that big war,” said Alex Vatanka, director of the Middle East Institute’s Iran program. “Israel is a nuclear state, Iran is a nuclear threshold state — and the U.S. speaks for itself on this front.”

Israel might be betting on a long fight in Gaza, but Iran is trying to make the conflict a global one, he added. “Nobody wants a war, so both sides have been gambling on the long term, hoping to kill the other guy through a thousand cuts.”

Emilio Casalicchio contributed reporting.

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As Gaza war grinds on, tensions soar along Israel’s volatile northern border with Lebanon

Israeli officials are stepping up threats against the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, warning that Israel is running out of patience as the two sides continue to trade fire along Israel’s volatile northern border.

Benny Gantz, a member of Israel’s War Cabinet, said Wednesday that if the international community and the Lebanese government don’t restrain Hezbollah, Israel will. Israel’s army chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, said the military is in a state of high readiness and has approved plans in case it decides to open a second front in the north.

The fighting along Israel’s northern border broke out when Hezbollah began firing rockets shortly after the Oct. 7 cross-border attack by Hamas triggered the war in Gaza.

While at a lower intensity than the battle in Gaza, the simultaneous fighting has caused destruction, displacement and death on both sides and raised fears of a wider regional war.

Here is a look at the battle between Israel and Hezbollah: WHAT DOES THE FIGHTING INVOLVE? Hezbollah fighters have been attacking Israeli posts and villages along the border, and the group has launched rockets and drones toward Israeli targets. Israeli tanks, artillery and aircraft have been striking areas on the Lebanese side of the border. The fighting has been mostly brief, but almost daily.

The Israeli military says more than 1,700 rockets have been fired from Lebanon toward Israel, killing 15 Israelis, including nine soldiers, and injuring more than 150 people.

Israel has evacuated about 60,000 people from more than 40 northern communities, including the main city of Kiryat Shemona, which has 22,000 residents. Israeli media outlets have aired footage of battered homes and barren communities, with Israeli soldiers guarding empty streets.

On the Lebanese side, around 74,500 people have been displaced by the fighting, according to the International Organization for Migration.

Nearly 160 people have been killed by Israeli airstrikes and shelling in Lebanon, according to an Associated Press tally. Most of those were fighters with Hezbollah and allied groups, but at least 19 civilians have also been killed, including journalists and children.

Human rights groups and local officials have also accused Israel of hitting Lebanese border areas with shells containing white phosphorus, a controversial incendiary munition. The strikes have burned hundreds of hectares (acres) of farm and woodland and injured civilians. Israel says all its actions conform with international law.


Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah are longtime bitter enemies, dating back to Israel’s occupation of parts of south Lebanon from 1982 to 2000.

After Hezbollah fighters ambushed an Israeli patrol in 2006 and took two Israeli soldiers hostage, the sides fought a vicious monthlong war that ended in a draw — but not before Israeli bombardment wreaked widespread destruction in southern Lebanon and parts of Beirut.

The border area had largely been quiet since that war, aside from sparse skirmishes and sporadic tensions. Israel estimates that Hezbollah has some 150,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, many of which can strike virtually anywhere in Israel, including the economic capital, Tel Aviv.

Hezbollah says its attacks aim to ease pressure on the Gaza Strip, where Israel is fighting an unprecedented ground, air and sea offensive meant to topple Hamas and return some 129 people held captive in the territory.

THE IRAN CONNECTION Although there has been no proof that Iran, Israel’s archenemy, ordered the Oct. 7 attack, its fingerprints have been visible throughout the ensuing conflict.

In addition to Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, Iran-backed groups in Yemen, Syria and Iraq have launched attacks on Israel and its allies in support of Hamas.

Also Read |‘Harrowing’: WHO decries deadly strike on Gaza refugee camp

In the Red Sea, attacks by Houthi rebels in Yemen against ships they believe to be connected to Israel have disrupted trade and prompted the launch of a U.S.-led multinational naval operation to protect shipping routes.

Iran-backed militias in Iraq have also launched dozens of attacks on bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, which they have said are in retaliation for Washington’s support of Israel.

And on Monday, Iranian state media blamed Israel for a strike on a Damascus neighborhood that killed a high-ranking Iranian general.

Amos Harel, a military commentator for the daily Haaretz newspaper, wrote Wednesday that the general’s killing was a message to Iran that it can no longer enjoy immunity while its proxies attack Israel.

“It also brings us closer to the possibility of a growing escalation against Hezbollah, and even against the Iranians, on the northern front,” he wrote.


Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, faces a risky balancing act.

Joining Hamas would risk dragging Lebanon — beset by economic calamity and internal political tensions — into a conflict it can ill afford, fueling domestic opposition to the group. The World Bank has already said the clashes are likely to harm Lebanon’s economy.

Lebanon is in the fourth year of a crippling economic crisis and is bitterly divided between Hezbollah and its allies and opponents, paralyzing the political system.

But staying entirely on the sidelines as Israeli troops battle in the Gaza Strip could compromise Hezbollah’s credibility, and a Hamas defeat would be a blow to Iran.

Hezbollah has been careful to limit its attacks on Israel, while keeping open the threat of a broader escalation.

“If Israel goes too far, we will retaliate twice as much,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Kassem, said Thursday. “We will not fear either Israeli or American threats or intimidation.”


With its soldiers bogged down in Gaza, Israel has mostly sought to limit the fighting in its north. Hezbollah’s military capabilities are far superior to those of Hamas.

Still, Israeli officials are increasingly warning that the country is prepared to expand the fighting and that Hezbollah should be prepared to pay a price for the damage it has wrought over the past three months.

Israel already has bolstered forces in the north and could well turn its sights on Hezbollah once it scales down or wraps up the war in Gaza.

Israel’s top ally, the U.S, which has sent military reinforcements to the region, says it prefers to see a negotiated solution to the mounting tensions rather than a second war front.

Israel also wants Hezbollah to abide by a 2006 U.N. cease-fire agreement that states the border area in southern Lebanon must be “free of any armed personnel, assets and weapons” other than Lebanese government forces and U.N. peacekeepers. Under the resolution, Hezbollah should not have military presence in the border region.

Lebanon, meanwhile, argues that Israel violates the resolution with its air force’s frequent entry into Lebanese airspace and by its presence in Chebaa Farms, a disputed area along the country’s border with the Golan Heights, an area seized by Israel from Syria in 1967.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said Wednesday that Hezbollah must respect the 2006 cease-fire. Otherwise, he warned, Nasrallah “must understand that he’s next.”

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Journalists killed in southern Lebanon: What the images show us about Israeli involvement

On the morning of November 21, two journalists from the Lebanese channel  Al Mayadeen – correspondent Farah Omar and cameraman Rabih Me’mari – were killed by an anti-tank missile. After analysing photos and videos that emerged after the incident, a military expert says that the strike came from the Israeli military. The two journalists were killed while covering tensions in southern Lebanon.  

The list of journalists killed on the border between Israel and Lebanon since October 7 just got longer. Two journalists from Al Mayadeen, a conservative Lebanese channel with close links to the group Hezbollah, were killed alongside two civilians on the morning of November 21.

The two journalists Farah Omar and Rabih Me’mari were killed by a missile strike while covering tensions in southern Lebanon between the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah.

Journalists killed a few minutes after a live broadcast

The strike, which occurred late in the morning, took place between the villages of Tayr Harfa and Jebbayn. The location was verified by GeoConfirmed, a group specialised in geolocation, by analysing images posted online before and after the strike.

At 9:50am, Al Mayadeen posted the last live broadcast by journalist Farah Omar on X (formerly Twitter). She was reporting from the site of the strike. Omar, who was wearing a vest that said “Press”, was being filmed by cameraman Rabih Me’mari.

This image shows Farah Omar’s last live broadcast. It was broadcast on Al Mayadeen the morning of November 21. © Al Mayadeen

Shortly before 11am, a photo of two bodies taken on the strike site started to circulate on Telegram. Omar’s body is seen wearing the blue and white striped shirt she wore in her last broadcast.

While it seems as if the journalists were not wearing their vests identifying them as press at the moment of the attack, their camera and tripod – on fire after the attack – were clearly set up in the open space they were shooting.

FRANCE 24 blurred this photo of two journalists killed by a missile strike in southern Lebanon. In the unblurred photo, you can recognise journalist Farah Omar’s body by the blue and white striped shirt that she was wearing in her last live broadcast. The photo started circulating on Telegram at 10:54am.
FRANCE 24 blurred this photo of two journalists killed by a missile strike in southern Lebanon. In the unblurred photo, you can recognise journalist Farah Omar’s body by the blue and white striped shirt that she was wearing in her last live broadcast. The photo started circulating on Telegram at 10:54am. © Telegram

Images shared by Iranian news channel SSN on its Telegram channel show two bodies being taken away from the site in an ambulance. The camera is still smoking. 

‘An area with active hostilities, where exchange of fire occur,’ said the IDF

The director of Al Mayadeen, Ghassan Ben Jeddou, accused Israel of “intentionally targeting” the two journalists.

“I tell you that you will not suppress the voice of this channel and you need to know that we will continue, no matter how many you kill or try to kill,” he said on Al Mayadeen, adding that one civilian killed alongside the journalists was a “contributor” to the channel, without further precision.

More news agencies, like Reuters and AFP also reported that Israeli strikes had killed the journalists. As did Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who “firmly condemned the Israeli attack”.

This incident came after the Israeli government’s decision on November 13 to block Al Mayadeen’s websites and programming. The authorities accused the channel of being a “mouthpiece of Hezbollah” and of “wartime efforts to harm [Israel’s] security interests and to serve the enemy’s goals”.

The IDF told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that it was “aware” of accusations that Israel had fired on the two journalists. It said the Israeli military had carried out an operation on November 21 against “a threat from a launch zone of the Hezbollah terrorist organisation, in the Jebbayn region”.

“This is an area with active hostilities, where exchanges of fire occur. Presence in the area is dangerous,” the IDF said, adding that “the incident is under investigation”.

An Israeli anti-tank missile, according to a military expert

How can we prove the origin of the attack? The FRANCE 24 Observers team analysed several video sequences broadcast by media in the region.

In the hours following the attack, a reporter from the Al Mayadeen channel also went live at the scene to show the various impacts of the strike. A crater about fifteen centimetres deep and a few centimetres wide was visible, while the tree next to the journalists and the house with the red wall were hit by numerous pieces of shrapnel.

Screenshots of the Al Mayadeen journalist livestream in the hours following the impact. A crater can be seen in the centre, a few metres from where the journalists were found. The tree (left) and the orange wall (right) are riddled with holes from shrapnel.
Screenshots of the Al Mayadeen journalist livestream in the hours following the impact. A crater can be seen in the centre, a few metres from where the journalists were found. The tree (left) and the orange wall (right) are riddled with holes from shrapnel. © Al Mayadeen, screenshots by FRANCE 24

Based on these visual elements, military expert Marc Garlasco concluded that the weapon used was a Spike NLOS anti-tank missile, which is only used by the IDF in this region. He explained his reasoning on X on November 21.

Garlasco, who works with the PAX Protection of Civilians organisation, has been documenting the use of this weapon for several years. A report he wrote for Human Rights Watch in 2009 outlines the use of the weapon in the Gaza Strip. He explained that the crater visible in this video, 15 cm in diameter, has the “visual signature” of a Spike missile.

We contacted Garlasco, who told us, “What we see is completely consistent with the very unique visual signature of the Spike. No other weapon I’ve studied has this visual signature.”

The various impacts visible on the tree and wall are also characteristic, in his eyes, of this type of missile, which ejects multiple cubic fragments on impact.

Marc Garlasco points out that this type of highly accurate missile is often used to target individuals: “It’s very clear that they hit what they’re targeting”, he says, pointing out that these missiles have a radius of inaccuracy of around one metre.

Amaël Kotlarski, manager of the armament team at defence intelligence firm Janes and a specialist in anti-tank missiles, confirmed to FRANCE 24 that the crater was caused by an anti-tank missile, adding that, however: “It is difficult to determine its origin and exact nature because there is no visible debris.”

The Al Mayadeen journalist on the scene claimed during the livestream that a drone was behind the attack. The experts we spoke to also found this hypothesis plausible. An Apache helicopter could also have been responsible for the strike, Garlasco said, as the Israeli military has shared several images of Apaches equipped with Spike NLOS missiles.

A conflict zone since October 7 

Since October 7 and the resurgence of tensions on the Lebanese-Israeli border, Israeli forces have carried out numerous air raids in southern Lebanon. Several strikes have hit the area where the two journalists were filming.

The IDF often shares videos of the strikes filmed from the air. It claims that it is targeting Hezbollah’s military infrastructure.

However, on October 13, two Israeli strikes targeted a group of seven journalists from the international media, clearly identified by their helmets and “Press” vests, according to a Reporters Without Borders video investigation published on October 29.

The missiles, fired from an Apache helicopter according to several witnesses at the scene, killed Reuters journalist Issam Abdallah instantly and wounded six other reporters. The group was located a few kilometres from the area where the Al Mayadeen journalists were working.

Locations of the attacks on journalist Issam Abdallah (red pin) and Farah Omar and Rabih Me'mari (orange pin).
Locations of the attacks on journalist Issam Abdallah (red pin) and Farah Omar and Rabih Me’mari (orange pin). Observers

On October 14, IDF spokesman Richard Hecht said the IDF was “very sorry” for the death of the journalist in cross-border shelling, adding that the incident was under investigation.

In November, an Al Jazeera photographer was also wounded by Israeli fire while covering bombardments in southern Lebanon alongside other journalists.

According to a list compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 53 journalists and media professionals have been killed since the start of the conflict on October 7, as of November 23.

In Lebanon, cross-border violence has claimed at least 92 lives. Most have been Hezbollah fighters but 14 civilians have also been killed, according to an AFP count. On the Israeli side, nine people have been killed, including six soldiers, according to the Israeli authorities.

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What is Hezbollah and what is its involvement in the Israel-Hamas war? | Explained

The story so far: More than 19,000 people have been displaced in Lebanon amid growing tensions between Israel and the Hezbollah group in West Asia, the United Nations announced on Monday. The ongoing Israel-Hamas war is now on day 23, with the death toll crossing 1,400 in Israel and 7,500 in Gaza.

During a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Israel President Isaac Herzog said on Tuesday that the country is not looking to wage war with Hezbollah militants on its northern border, but is focused instead on battling Hamas in the Gaza Strip, news agency Reuters reported.

“I want to make clear, we are not looking for a confrontation on our northern border or with anyone else … But if Hezbollah drags us into war, it should be clear that Lebanon will pay the price,” the report quoted President Herzog as saying.

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah, which stands for “party of God”, is a Shia Islamist political party in Lebanon as well as a militant group designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S., the U.K., Israel, Germany, Australia, and other countries.

Origin of Hezbollah

In 1982, the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) invaded Lebanon, where the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) was active. Hezbollah was established soon after the invasion as a resistance effort against the Israeli forces. In addition to Lebanon’s Shia population, Hezbollah’s resistance to Israel gained support of Palestinian groups as well as State sponsorship from Iran, which underwent an Islamic revolution in 1979.

Even though it was established in the 1980s, the roots of Hezbollah go back to Lebanon’s confessional system established after the country got independence from the French colonial rule in 1943. The National Pact, signed by the new leaders of the country, agreed to a power division among the major religious groups – a Sunni Muslim to serve as Prime Minister, a Maronite Christian as President, and a Shia Muslim as the Speaker of the Parliament.

The influx of thousands of displaced Palestinians into Lebanon caused the country’s demography to shift in favour of Muslims of the Sunni sect. In 1971, PLO relocated its headquarters from Jordan to Lebanon. The religious and political sects in the country continued to fight for greater power shares, resulting in a civil war that began in 1975 and ended in 1989. Syria also sent troops to Lebanon in 1976, intensifying an already volatile geopolitical situation.The involvement of the U.S. and the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon further complicated matters.

Israel invaded Lebanon when it was engrossed in civil war. Named “Operation Peace for Galilee” by Israel, the invasion was aimed at “removing the military threats from northern Israel, destroying PLO’s forces [in Lebanon], ending Syrian presence and influence, and assisting in forming a more friendly government in Lebanon that would be able to sign a peace treaty with Israel.” The invasion followed the shooting of Shlomo Argov, Israel’s ambassador to the U.K. by the Abu Nidal Palestinian Organisation.

A group of Shia extremists, influenced by Iran’s newly-formed theocratic government, took up arms against the Israeli forces in Lebanon and came to be known as Hezbollah. The group was financially and militarily supported by Iran; the two were tied together by a similar ideology and the goal of seizing power in West Asia.

According to Israel, its Operation Peace for Galilee achieved some of its goals — PLO leadership was expelled from Lebanon and forced to relocate to Tunisia, but the newly-formed Shia militant group Hezbollah continued to attack Israeli forces in Lebanon. The IDF withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, but it still keeps the Shebaa Farms, a Lebanese territory on the border, under its control.

Hezbollah’s “goals and principles”

In an “open letter” issued in 1985, Hezbollah called the U.S. the “first root of vice”, and also seconded the views of Ruhollah Khomeini, the former Supreme Leader of Iran. “Imam Khomeini, the leader, has repeatedly stressed that America is the reason for all our catastrophes and the source of all malice. By fighting it, we are only exercising our legitimate right to defend Islam and the dignity of our nation,” the letter read.

The letter blamed the U.S., France, Israel, and the Phalange [Lebanon’s Maronite Christian party] for the destruction of Palestine and the displacement of nearly half a million Muslims from their homes. Hezbollah listed removing the U.S., France, and their allies from Lebanon, and the removal of IDF from the country as well as Israel’s eventual “obliteration” as its objectives in Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s growth

The U.S. embassy in Beirut was attacked in April 1983, in which 63 people were killed. In October of the same year, around 300 people were killed in suicide attacks on barracks housing U.S. and French troops. A U.S. court blamed Hezbollah for the attacks, but the group denied responsibility.

In 1984, multiple people were killed in a bombing at the U.S. embassy annex in Beirut. The attack was attributed to Hezbollah.

A bomb attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1992 killed more than 20 people. The Islamic Jihad Organisation claimed responsibility for the attack; this according to the U.S. Department of State, is another name for Hezbollah.

In 1989, Lebanese parliamentarians met in Taif, Saudi Arabia and reached an agreement to end the Lebanese Civil War. The members accepted a constitutional reform package that modified the 1943 pattern of governance in Lebanon — the powers of Maronite Christian President were reduced in comparison to the Sunni Prime Minister and Shia Speaker. The agreement also banned all militias, except Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s electoral success and alleged terrorist activities

Following the Taif Agreement, Hezbollah decided to contest elections in Lebanon. In 1992. The militia-party contested national polls for the first time, winning eight seats. Hezbollah won the seats under the leadership of Hassan Nasrallah, who is still its Secretary-General. Nasrallah took over after the IDF killed his predecessor Abbas al-Musawi in February 1992.

Hezbollah has held parliament positions in Lebanon since 2005. In the 2018 election, it won 13 seats— 71 in total along with allies. Currently running a political party, a militia, and a social services network of schools, hospitals, and youth programmes, Hezbollah has been described by the Centre for Foreign Relations as a “state within a state”.

In the 2022 general elections, Iran-backed Hezbollah and its allies lost their majority in the Lebanese Parliament, winning 62 of the Parliament’s 128 seats.

Despite its electoral success, multiple international terrorist attacks were attributed to Hezbollah. In 1994, a car bomb at Israel’s embassy in London injured more than a dozen people, and another at a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires killed 85 people. Both these attacks were attributed to Hezbollah, although the group denied involvement.

Hezbollah was also implicated in the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a car bombing in Beirut. Mr. Hariri’s assassination led to the ‘Cedar Revolution’ in Lebanon, a peaceful civic resistance to drive out Syrian influence and military from the country and hold free elections.

Five Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian bus driver were killed in a bomb attack in Burgas, Bulgaria, in 2012. Bulgarian courts convicted two Hezbollah operatives in absentia in connection with the bombing.

What is the structure of Hezbollah?

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Nasrallah oversees a seven-member Shura Council of Hezbollah and five sub-councils, which include the political assembly, the jihad assembly, the parliamentary assembly, the executive assembly, and the judicial assembly. Shura is a generic Islamic term denoting a council or an advisory body.

How is Hezbollah involved in the Israel-Hamas war?

Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah met leaders of the Palestinian militant factions Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Wednesday to discuss what the alliance must do to “achieve a real victory for the resistance,” Reuters reported. The Iran-backed group has had daily exchanges of fire with Israeli forces since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, the report added. 

Despite Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, sporadic clashes between the two have continued over the years on Lebanon’s southern and Israel’s northern border. In 2006, Hezbollah attacked an Israeli patrol unit, reportedly killing three and abducting two Israeli soldiers. The attack led to an intense month-long war where more than a thousand Lebanese people and around 160 Israelis were killed before a ceasefire was reached.

Israel and Hezbollah exchanged fire in 2019 and then again in 2021, CFR reported.

Experts believe that if the war spills on to a second front apart from Gaza, it will be on the Israel-Lebanon border.

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Israeli troops carry out an hour-long ground raid into Gaza before an expected wider incursion

Israeli troops and tanks launched an hourslong ground raid into northern Gaza overnight into Thursday, the military said, striking several militant targets in order to “prepare the battlefield” before a widely expected ground invasion after more than two weeks of devastating airstrikes.

The raid came after the U.N. warned that’s it’s on the verge of running out of fuel in the Gaza Strip, forcing it to sharply curtail relief efforts in the territory, which has also been under a complete siege since Hamas’ bloody rampage across southern Israel ignited the war earlier this month.

The rising death toll in Gaza, which soared past 7,000 on Thursday, according to Palestinian officials, is unprecedented in the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even greater loss of life could come if Israel launches an expected ground offensive aimed at crushing Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 and survived four previous wars with Israel.

The Health Ministry in Hamas-ruled Gaza said Wednesday that more than 750 people were killed over the past 24 hours, higher than the 704 killed the previous day. The Associated Press couldn’t independently verify the death toll, and the ministry doesn’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.

On Wednesday, the wife, son, daughter and grandson of Wael Dahdouh, a veteran Al-Jazeera correspondent in Gaza, were killed in an Israeli strike. The Qatar-based network showed footage of his grief upon entering a hospital and seeing his dead son. Dahdouh and other mourners attended the funerals on Thursday wearing the blue flak jackets used by reporters in the Palestinian territories.

The Israeli military says it only strikes militant targets and accuses Hamas of operating among civilians in densely-populated Gaza. Palestinian militants have fired rocket barrages into Israel since the war began.

Israel has vowed to crush Hamas’ capacity to govern Gaza or threaten it again, while also saying it doesn’t want to reoccupy the territory from which it withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005. That could prove a daunting challenge, since Hamas is deeply rooted in Palestinian society, with political and charity organizations as well as a formidable armed wing.

Benny Gantz, a retired general and a member of Israel’s war Cabinet, said any possible ground offensive would be only “one stage in a long-term process that includes security, political and social aspects that will take years.”

“The campaign will soon ramp up with greater force,” he added.

During the overnight raid, soldiers killed fighters and destroyed militant infrastructure and anti-tank missile launching positions, the military said. It said that no Israelis were wounded. There was no immediate confirmation of any Palestinian casualties.

Israeli Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, a military spokesman, said the limited incursion was “part of our preparations for the next stages of the war.”

Israel also said it had also carried out around 250 airstrikes across Gaza in the last 24 hours, targeting tunnel shafts, rocket launchers and other militant infrastructure.

The Gaza Health Ministry says more than 7,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war — a figure that includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital. That is more than three times the number of Palestinians killed in the six-week-long Gaza war in 2014. The ministry’s toll includes more than 2,900 minors and more than 1,500 women.

The fighting has killed more than 1,400 people in Israel, mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack, according to the Israeli government. Hamas also holds at least 224 hostages in Gaza.

The warning by the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, over depleting fuel supplies raised alarm that the humanitarian crisis could quickly worsen.

Gaza’s population has also been running out of food, water and medicine. About 1.4 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million residents have fled their homes, with nearly half of them crowded into U.N. shelters. Hundreds of thousands remain in northern Gaza, despite Israel ordering them to evacuate to the south, saying those who remain might be considered “accomplices” of Hamas.

In recent days, Israel has let more than 60 trucks with aid enter from Egypt, which aid workers say is insufficient and only a tiny fraction of what was being brought in before the war. Israel is still barring deliveries of fuel — needed to power generators — saying it believes that Hamas will take it.

An official with the International Committee of the Red Cross said that it hopes to bring in eight trucks filled with vital medical supplies.

“This is a small amount of what is required, a drop in the ocean,” said William Schomburg, head of the sub-delegation in Gaza. “We are trying to establish a pipeline.”

UNRWA has been sharing its own fuel supplies so that trucks can distribute aid, bakeries can feed people in shelters, water can be desalinated, and hospitals can keep incubators, life support machines and other vital equipment working. If it continues doing all of that, fuel will run out by Thursday, so the agency is deciding how to ration its supply, UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara Alrifai told The Associated Press.

“Do we give (it) for the incubators or the bakeries?” she said. “It is an excruciating decision.”

More than half of Gaza’s primary health care facilities and roughly a third of its hospitals have stopped functioning, the World Health Organization said.

At Gaza City’s al-Shifa Hospital, the lack of medicine and clean water have led to “alarming” infection rates, the group Doctors Without Borders said. Amputations are often required to prevent infection from spreading in the wounded, it said.

One surgeon with the group described amputating half the foot of a 9-year-old boy with only “slight sedation” on a hallway floor as his mother and sister watched.

The conflict has also threatened to spread across the region. The Israeli military said Wednesday it struck military sites in Syria in response to rocket launches from the country. Syrian state media said that eight soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded.

Israel has also been exchanging near daily fire with Iranian-backed Hezbollah across the Lebanese border.

Israeli airstrikes and drone attacks early Thursday caused fires in open land in the southern Lebanon border town of Aita al Shaab, where clashes have intensified, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said. It reported strikes late Wednesday on towns in the Tyre district, saying a mattress factory was hit.

Hamas’ surprise attack on Oct. 7 in southern Israel stunned the country with its brutality, its unprecedented toll and the failure of intelligence agencies to know it was coming. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a speech Wednesday night that he will be held accountable, but only after Hamas was defeated.

“We will get to the bottom of what happened,” he said. “This debacle will be investigated. Everyone will have to give answers, including me.”

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The longer Israel thinks, the more time Washington has to calm its wrath

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

BEIRUT — “Once you break it, you are going to own it,” General Colin Powell warned former United States President George W. Bush when he was considering invading Iraq in the wake of 9/11.

And as the invasion plan came together, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld blocked any serious postwar planning for how Iraq would be run once the country’s ruler Saddam Hussein had gone. As far as he was concerned, once “shock and awe” had smashed Iraq, others could pick up the pieces.

British generals fumed at this. And General Mike Jackson, head of the British army during the invasion, later described Rumsfeld’s approach as “intellectually bankrupt.”

That history is now worth recalling — and was likely on U.S. President Joe Biden’s mind when he urged the Israeli war cabinet last week not to “repeat mistakes” made by the U.S. after 9/11.

Despite Biden’s prompt, however, Israel still doesn’t appear to have a definitive plan for what to do with the Gaza Strip once it has pulverized the enclave and inflicted lasting damage on Hamas for the heinous October 7 attacks.

Setting aside just how difficult a military task Israel will face undertaking its avowed aim of ending Hamas as an organization — former U.S. General David Petraeus told POLITICO last week that a Gaza ground war could be “Mogadishu on steroids” — the lack of endgame here suggests a lack of intellectual rigor that disturbingly echoes Rumsfeld’s.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told lawmakers Friday that the country didn’t have plans to maintain control over Gaza after its war against Hamas had concluded, saying Israel would end its “responsibility for life in the Gaza Strip.” Among other minor matters, this raises the issue of where the coastal enclave of 2.3 million people will get life-sustaining energy and water, as Israel supplies most utility needs.

Israeli and Western officials say the most likely option would be to hand responsibility to the West Bank-based Palestinian National Authority, which oversaw the enclave until Hamas violently grabbed control in 2007. “I think in the end the best thing is that the Palestinian Authority goes back into Gaza,” Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid said last week.

But it isn’t clear whether Mahmoud Abbas — the Palestinian Authority president and head of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is dominated by his Fatah party — would want Gaza on those terms, or whether he has the power to do much of anything with the enclave in the first place.

Abbas is already struggling to maintain his authority over the West Bank. He’s an unpopular leader, and his government is seen to be not only appallingly venal, but is perceived by many as ceding to the demands of the Israeli authorities too easily. 

Israel now controls 60 percent of the West Bank, and its encroaching settlements in the area — which are illegal under international law — haven’t helped Abbas. Nor have Israeli efforts to hold back the West Bank from developing — a process dubbed “de-developing” by critics and aimed, they say, at restricting growth and strangling Palestinian self-determination.

In West Bank refugee camps, Abbas’ security forces have now lost authority to armed groups — including disgruntled Fatah fighters. “It is unclear whether Abbas would be prepared to play such an obvious role subcontracting for Israel in Gaza. This would further erode whatever domestic standing the PA has left,” assessed Hugh Lovatt, a Middle East analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But it isn’t only Gaza — or the West Bank — that risks breaking in the coming weeks.

Neighboring countries are watching events unfold with growing alarm, and they fear that if more thought isn’t given to Israel’s response to the savage Hamas attacks, and it isn’t developed in consultation with them, they’ll be crushed in the process. If Israel wants the support of these countries — or their help even — in calming the inevitable anger of their populations once a military campaign is launched, it needs their buy-in and agreement on the future of Gaza and Palestinians, and to stop using the language of collective punishment.

Lebanon, where the Iran-backed Hezbollah — Hamas’ ally — has been intensifying its skirmishes along the border with Israel, is currently the most vulnerable. And Lebanese politicians are complaining they’re being disregarded by all key protagonists — Israel, the U.S. and Iran — in a tragedy they wish to have no part in.

Already on its knees from an economic crisis that plunged an estimated 85 percent of its population into poverty, and with a barely functioning caretaker government, the Lebanese are desperate not to become the second front in Iran’s war with Israel. Lebanon “could fall apart completely,” Minister of Economy and Trade Amin Salam said.

But the leaders of Egypt and Jordan share Lebanon’s frustrations, arguing that the potential repercussions for them are being overlooked. This is why Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called Saturday’s Cairo summit of regional and international leaders.

El-Sisi focused the conference on a longer-term political solution, hopefully a serious effort to make good on the 2007 Annapolis Conference’s resolution to set up a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Egypt has much to lose if the war escalates — and the country’s officials are fuming at what they see as a careless attitude from Israel toward what happens to Gaza after Hamas is subjugated, potentially leaving a cash-strapped Egypt to pick up some of the pieces.

More than that, Egypt and Jordan harbor deep suspicions — as do many other Arab leaders and politicians — that as the conflict unfolds, Israel’s war aims will shift. They worry that under pressure from the country’s messianic hard-right parties, Israel will end up annexing north Gaza, or maybe all of Gaza, permanently uprooting a large proportion of its population, echoing past displacements of Palestinians — including the nakba (catastrophe), the flight and expulsion of an estimated 700,000 Palestinians in 1948.

This is why both el-Sisi and Jordan’s King Abdullah II are resisting the “humanitarian” calls for displaced Gazans to find refuge in their countries. They suspect it won’t be temporary and will add to their own security risks, as Gazans would likely have to be accommodated in the Sinai — where Egyptian security forces are already engaged in a long-standing counterinsurgency against Islamist militant groups.

And both countries do have grounds for concern about Israel’s intentions.

Some columnists for Israel Hayom —a newspaper owned by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s close friend, American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson — are already calling for annexation. “My hope is that the enemy population residing there now will be expelled and that the Strip will be annexed and repopulated by Israel,” wrote Jonathan Pollard, a former U.S. intelligence analyst who served 30 years in prison for spying for Israel before emigrating.

And last week, Gideon Sa’ar, the newly appointed minister in Netanyahu’s wartime government, said that Gaza “must be smaller at the end of the war . . . Whoever starts a war against Israel must lose territory.”

Given all this, there are now signs the Biden administration is starting to take the risks of the Gaza crisis breaking things far and wide fully on board — despite widespread Arab fears that it still isn’t. By not being fast enough to express sympathy for ordinary Gazans’ suffering as Israel pummels the enclave, Biden’s aides initially fumbled. And while that can easily be blamed on Hamas, it needs to be expressed by American officials loudly and often.

In the meantime, the unexplained delay of Israel’s ground attack is being seen by some analysts as a sign that Washington is playing for time, hoping to persuade the country to rethink how it will go about attacking Hamas, prodding Israel to define a realistic endgame that can secure buy-in from Arab leaders and help combat the propaganda of Jew-hatred.

Meanwhile, hostage negotiations now appear to be progressing via Qatar, after two American captives were freed Friday. There have also been reports of top Biden aides back-channeling Iran via Oman.

So, despite Arab condemnation, the Biden administration’s approach may be more subtle than many realize — at least according to Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. He said it was always inevitable that Washington would publicly back Israel but that a primary aim has been to “contain Israel’s reaction” to the Hamas attacks, while seemingly deferring to the country.

And time will help. The longer Israel thinks, the more opportunity Washington has to reason, to calm, and to explain the trail of cascading wreckage Israel risks leaving behind if it is unrestrained and fails to answer — as Biden put it — “very hard questions.”

But that might not be sufficient to prevent everything spinning out of control. Israel morally and legally has the right to defend itself from barbaric attacks that were more a pogrom, and it must ensure the safety of its citizens. There are also others — notably Iran — that want the destruction of the Jewish state, and even a scaled down response from Israel may trigger the escalation most in the region fear.

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The dogs of war are howling in the Middle East

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

BEIRUT — Against a dawning day, just hours after the fatal Gaza hospital explosion that killed hundreds, Israel’s border with Lebanon crackled with shelling and fighter jet strikes as Israeli warplanes responded to an uptick in shelling from Hezbollah.

Regardless of who struck the al-Ahli Arab Hospital, the needle is now rapidly shifting in a dangerous direction. And hopes are being pinned on United States President Joe Biden and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who is set to host an emergency summit in Cairo on Saturday. But the chances of a wider war engulfing Lebanon and the entire region being hurled into violent chaos once more are growing by the hour.

As Hezbollah announced “a day of rage” against Israel, protests have targeted U.S. missions in the region, more embassies in Beirut have started sending off non-essentials staff, and security teams are being flown in to protect diplomatic missions and European NGOs, preparing contingency plans for staff evacuation. An ever-growing sense of dread and foreboding is now gripping the Levant.

Currently, Israel insists the hospital explosion was caused by an errant rocket fired by Islamic Jihad — and the White House agrees. But the Palestinian militant group, which is aligned with Hamas, says this is a “lie and fabrication,” insisting Israel was responsible. Regardless of where the responsibility lies, however, the blast at the hospital — where hundreds of Palestinian civilians were sheltering from days of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave of Gaza — is sending shock waves far and wide.

It has already blown Biden’s trip to the region off course, as his planned Wednesday meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan had to be axed. The meeting was meant to take place after his visit to Israel, where Biden had the tricky task of showing solidarity, while also pressing the country’s reluctant Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza.

A statement from the White House said the the decision to cancel the meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Egypt’s El-Sisi and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had been jointly made in light of the hospital strike.

But Arab leaders have made clear they had no hope the meeting would be productive. Abbas pulled out first, before Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi suggested a meeting would be pointless. “There is no use in talking now about anything except stopping the war,” he said, referencing Israel’s near-constant bombardment of Gaza.

Scrapping the Jordan stop lost the U.S. leader a major face-to-face opportunity to navigate the crisis, leaving American efforts to stave off a wider conflict in disarray.

The U.S. was already facing tough criticism in the region for being too far in Israel’s corner and failing to condemn the country for civilian deaths in Gaza. Meanwhile, Arab leaders have shrugged off U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s efforts to get them to denounce Hamas — they refuse to label the organization as a terror group, seeing the October 7 attacks as the inevitable consequence of the failure to deliver a two-state solution for Palestinians and lift Israel’s 17-year blockade on Gaza.

Whether anyone can now stop a bigger war is highly uncertain. But there was one word that stood out in Biden’s immediate remarks after the Hamas attacks, and that was “don’t.” “To any country, any organization, anyone thinking of taking advantage of the situation, I have one word,” he said. “Don’t.”

However, this is now being drowned out by furious cries for revenge. Wrath has its grip on all parties in the region, as old hatreds and grievances play out and the tit-for-tat blows accelerate. Much like Mark Antony’s exhortation in Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” is now the sentiment being heard here, obscuring reason and leaving diplomacy struggling in its wake.

In the immediate aftermath of last week’s slaughter, righteous fury had understandably gripped Israelis. Netanyahu channeled that rage, vowing “mighty vengeance” against Hamas for the surprise attacks, pledging to destroy the Iran-backed Palestinian militant group. “Every Hamas terrorist is a dead man,” he said days later.

However, Israel hasn’t officially announced it will launch a ground mission — something it has refrained from doing in recent years due to the risk of losing a high number of soldiers. But it has massed troops and armor along the border, drafted 300,000 reservists — the biggest call-up in decades — and two days after the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu reportedly told Biden that Israel had no choice but to launch a ground operation. Publicly, he warned Israelis the country faced a “long and difficult war.”

The one hope that havoc won’t be unleashed in the region now rests partly — but largely — upon Israel reducing its military goals and deciding not to launch a ground offensive on Gaza, which would be the most likely trigger for Hezbollah and its allies to commence a full-scale attack, either across the southern border or on the Golan Heights.

That was certainly the message from Ahmed Abdul-Hadi, Hamas’ chief representative in Lebanon. He told POLITICO that an Israeli ground offensive in Gaza would be one of the key triggers that could bring Hezbollah fully into the conflict, and that Hamas and Hezbollah are now closely coordinating their responses.

“Hezbollah will pay no attention to threats from anyone against it entering the war; it will ignore warnings to stay out of it. The timing of when Hezbollah wants to enter the war or not will relate to Israeli escalation and incidents on the ground, and especially if Israel tries to enter Gaza on the ground,” he said.

Lebanese politicians are now pinning their hopes on Israel not opting to mount a ground offensive on the densely populated enclave — an operation that would almost certainly lead to a high number of civilian casualties and spark further Arab outrage, in addition to a likely Hezbollah intervention. They see some possibility in Biden’s warning that any move by Israel to reoccupy Gaza would be a “big mistake” — a belated sign that Washington is now trying to impose a limit on Israel’s actions in retaliation for the Hamas attacks.

And how that dovetails with Netanyahu’s stated aim to “demolish Hamas”and “defeat the bloodthirsty monsters who have risen against us to destroy us” is another one of the major uncertainties that will determine if the dogs of war will be fully unleashed.

At the moment, however, an apparent pause in Israeli ground operations is giving some a reason to hope. While assembled units are on standby and awaiting orders, on Tuesday an Israel military spokesman suggested a full-scale ground assault might not be what’s being prepared.

Michael Young, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, suspects a “rethink” is underway, likely prompted by Israeli military chiefs’ realization that a ground offensive wouldn’t just be bloody, it wouldn’t rid Gaza of Hamas either. “When the PLO was forced out of Lebanon by Israel in 1982, it still was able to maintain a presence in the country and Yasser Arafat was back within a year in Lebanon,” he said.

Likewise, lawmaker Ashraf Rifi — a former director of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces — told POLITICO he thinks Israeli generals are likely just as behind the apparent hold as their Western allies. “Military commanders are always less enthusiastic about going to war than politicians, and Israeli military commanders are always cautious,” he said.

“Let’s hope so, otherwise we will all be thrown into hell.”

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Could Hamas’s attack on Israel pose a threat for the region and Saudi-Israeli normalisation?

An unprecedented, deadly attack carried out by Hamas on Israel on Saturday has sparked fears of a broader regional escalation, with Saudi-Israeli normalisation particularly at risk, experts told FRANCE 24.

At the break of dawn on October 7, the Islamist militant group Hamas launched a multi-pronged attack on Israel. From its stronghold, the blockaded Gaza Strip, the group fired thousands of rockets into the country while its fighters infiltrated nearby communities, killing and capturing locals.

Almost fifty years to the day that marked the start of the Yom Kippur war in 1973, the attacks have killed more than 350 people in Gaza and more than 600 in Israel.

The incursion was met with fierce military retaliation from Israel, who launched rockets that razed entire neighbourhoods in Gaza and left hundreds dead.  

The bloody battle is far from being over. On Sunday, as Hamas gunmen and Israeli security forces continued to fight in the south, Lebanon’s Hezbollah exchanged artillery and rocket fire with Israeli troops across northern borders.  

The ongoing violence has sparked fears of regional escalation, with experts warning the situation could become a broader cross-border conflict.  

A potential ‘multi-front war’ 

Lebanese militant group Hezbollah claimed responsibility for firing dozens of rockets and shells at a disputed area along Israel’s northern border on Sunday. Viewed as a major threat by Israel, the group has been backed by Iran for years and has close ties with Hamas.  

Hezbollah’s senior official Hashem Safieddine said on Sunday the group’s “guns and rockets” were with Palestinian militants. 

Experts fear the cross-border clashes could put pressure on Hezbollah to open a second front in northern Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah and Israel fought a 34-day war that left more than 1,200 dead in Lebanon – mostly civilians – and 160 in Israel, mostly soldiers.

“The risk of the conflict escalating is real, especially with what is happening on [Israel’s] northern border,” says David Rigoulet-Roze, editor of the research journal Orients Stratégiques. “There is a risk of a second front opening up, and that is very worrying.”  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday said Israel was at war and that its forces would exact a heavy price from its enemies. Although the direct implications of his words are not entirely clear, experts say the possibility of a major war cannot be ruled out.  

“If Israel sends ground troops into Gaza or does something else drastic,” says Hussein Ibish, senior resident school at the Arab Gulf States Institute, “then Hezbollah could open up a front in Lebanon and defend their decision by saying they have no choice, that they must defend Palestine.”  

“We could see Israel dragged into a multi-front war with various different resistance groups, most of them beholden to Iran,” explains Ibish.  

For Myriam Benraad, a political scientist specialising in the Arab world at Schiller University in Paris, Hamas’s attack could escalate tensions between Israel and Arab countries more broadly. 

In 2020, the so-called Abraham Accords mediated by the US normalised diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco.

“Beyond the Israeli-Palestinian context, there is an Israeli-Arab context that is going to be extremely tense,” she says, stressing that “public opinion in Arab countries is still overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian”, even though the “proliferation of conflicts in the Middle East have pushed the issue of Palestine into the background”.  

“Hamas, on the other hand, is pursuing a hardline approach aimed at preventing any normalisation with Israel.”  

Saudi-Israeli relations at a standstill 

Although Hamas has not been explicitly clear about why it decided to launch its offensive now, the attack has dealt a severe blow to Saudi Arabian and Israeli relations. 

Since late September, the two countries have been engaged in talks led by US President Joe Biden to normalise diplomatic relations that could see Saudi Arabia recognise Israel’s statehood in exchange for US security guarantees.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman gave a rare interview with right-wing broadcaster Fox News on September 20, praising the negotiations for bringing both countries “closer” to normalisation every day, but insisted that the treatment of Palestinians is a “very important” issue to be resolved. 

Two days later, Netanyahu addressed a UN General Assembly claiming that Israel was “at the cusp” of a historic breakthrough that could lead to a peace agreement.  

With Biden eager for a big diplomatic win ahead of the 2024 presidential elections, the talks were expected to continue in coming weeks. But now they have been cut short.  

“This is clearly an effort to put a stop to the Saudi-Israeli normalisation process, and I think [Hamas] has a very good chance of doing that,” explains Ibish.  

“It seems to me that Israel is in an impossible situation. Anything they do to try and prevent this from happening again is going to mean more suffering for Palestinians, greater occupation, greater restrictions and more brutality on the Israeli side,” says Ibish. “That is going to make it harder for the Saudis to move forward.”  

Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry said in a statement on Saturday that it had been warning of an “explosive situation” brought on by decades of “continued occupation and deprivation” of Palestinian rights, a reminder of the kingdom’s long-held support for Palestinians.  

“These are all calculations that have inspired Hamas,” says Ibish.  

Like its years-long backer Iran, the Hamas militant group does not recognise Israel’s right to exist as a state.  

Iran supports the attacks 

Standing behind Hamas, Hezbollah and the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine, Iran has condemned any possibility of normalising relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The country is accused by Israel of supplying the militant groups with weapons and intelligence for years, and was one of the first countries to welcome Saturday’s offensive.  

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi on Sunday said his country supported the legitimate defence of the Palestinian nation, adding that “the Zionist regime [Israel] and its supporters are responsible for instability in the region, and they must be held accountable in this matter”. He urged Muslim governments to “support the Palestinian nation”.  

While it is too early to determine the exact role Iran played in mounting Saturday’s attack, experts agree that Hamas likely had the country’s support. “I very much doubt that Hamas alone could have prepared and decided to launch the strikes,” says Professor Karim Emile Bitar, a Middle East expert and Associate Fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy. 

“I think Iran has been growing increasingly nervous because of the ongoing Saudi-Israeli rapprochement,” Bitar says, which could explain “this turning point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”.  

Whatever its involvement may be, Israel and Iran have been bitter rivals engaged in a shadow war for years. Now that Iran’s allies Hezbollah and Hamas are engaging in what could become a full-blown war with Israel, experts are on their toes, uncertain of what will come next.  

But for Bitar, one thing is certain. “Judging from history of the past decades, we can only assume that the Israeli response will be absolutely devastating and that this is the beginning of a horrible war that would lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of victims,” the professor concludes.  

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