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Israel-Hezbollah tensions rise after rocket barrage from Lebanon

An Israeli policeman inspects the impact crater left by a rocket fired from southern Lebanon where it landed near the entrance of Ziv hospital in Israel’s northern city of Safed on Wednesday.  (Jalaa Marey/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
By Gwen Ackerman and Dana Khraiche Bloomberg News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The reaction in markets was muted and the shekel held on to its gains for the day.

Lebanon in crisis

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

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

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

Daniel Sobelman, an expert on Hezbollah at Hebrew University and Harvard Kennedy School, said that the latest attack across Israel’s northern border with Lebanon was different in that it targeted an area “a bit further south.”

But that didn’t necessarily mean a move beyond what “both parties refer to as the rules of the game,” he said. “Both parties for the past four months have stayed below a certain threshold of escalation.”

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said in a speech Tuesday his organization will continue to attack Israel until it agrees to a cease-fire with Hamas.

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

Mediators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar are working to secure an Israel-Hamas cease-fire and the return of about 100 hostages still held by the militant group in Gaza. No agreement has yet been reached, though, and Netanyahu has played down the chances on one.

The prime minister refused to send negotiators to Cairo for follow-up talks on Thursday, saying he wouldn’t given in to Hamas’s “delusional demands.” One of the group’s conditions is that Israeli forces pull out of Gaza within about 90 days of a cease-fire.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules Palestinians in the West Bank, has urged Hamas to quickly agree a deal to prevent an attack on Rafah.

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

Hamas abducted around 250 people during its incursion. Roughly 100 were freed during a week-long truce that ended on Dec. 1 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.

Hamas and Hezbollah are considered terrorist organization by the U.S.

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