Lebanon's militant Hezbollah leader threatens escalation with Israel as its war with Hamas rages on

The US has called for Hezbollah not to 'take advantage' of the war

By AP

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Published: Fri 3 Nov 2023, 8:39 PM

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said Friday that his powerful militia is already engaged in unprecedented cross-border fighting with Israel along the Lebanon-Israel border and threatened a further escalation as the Israel-Hamas war nears the one-month mark.

In the televised remarks — Nasrallah's first since the beginning of the war sparked by the Palestinian militants’ deadly October 7 incursion into southern Israel — he stopped short of announcing that his Lebanese militia would fully enter the war, a move that would have devastating consequences for both Lebanon and Israel.

The United States called on Friday for Hezbollah not to "take advantage" of the Israel-Hamas war after the Lebanese militants' leader said "all options" were open.

"We and our partners have been clear: Hezbollah and other actors -- state or non-state -- should not try to take advantage of the ongoing conflict," a spokesperson from the National Security Council said.

In his first speech since war broke out last month between Hamas militants and Israel, the head of Hezbollah, the powerful Iranian-backed Shiite movement, said the United States was "entirely responsible" for the ongoing Gaza conflict, and could prevent a regional conflagration by preventing its ally Israel's attacks.

Asked for a response, the National Security Council spokesperson said: "We will not engage in a war of words."

"The United States does not seek escalation or widening of the conflict that Hamas brought onto Israel," the spokesperson said.

Hezbollah is prepared for all options, he declared, “and we can resort to them at any time.” The fighting on the Lebanon-Israel border would “not be limited” to the scale seen until now, he added.

In recent weeks, Hezbollah has fired rockets across the border daily, mainly hitting military targets in northern Israel, but it has a substantial arsenal capable of hitting anywhere in Israel and thousands of battle-hardened fighters.

Nasrallah's speech had been widely anticipated throughout the region as an indication whether the Israel-Hamas conflict would spiral into a regional war.

“Some say I’m going to announce that we have entered the battle," Nasrallah said Friday. "We already entered the battle on October 8.” He argued that Hezbollah's cross-border strikes have pulled away Israeli forces that would otherwise be focused on Hamas in Gaza.

Celebratory gunshots rang out over Beirut as thousands packed into a square in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital to watch the speech broadcast via video-link on a massive screen.

Nasrallah's address came as the top US diplomat visited Israel and after the most significant escalation on the Israel-Lebanon border since the war started, with Hezbollah firing off a barrage of mortar shells and anti-tank missiles on Thursday and, for the first time, suicide drones.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to urge protections for civilians in the fighting with Hamas, as Israeli troops tightened their encirclement of Gaza City.

Nasrallah criticised the strong US backing of Israel in its bombardment of Gaza that has killed more than 9,000 people, mostly civilians. While US officials in recent days have pushed more publicly for protecting civilians in Gaza, they have yet to call for a cease-fire.

The Hezbollah leader said President Joe Biden had made a “fake argument that Hamas cut off children’s heads (without) evidence, but stayed silent for the thousands of children in Gaza who were decapitated and their limbs were torn apart” by Israeli bombing.

Nasrallah praised the Hamas' incursion into Israel in which militants attacked farming villages, towns and military posts, killing more than 1,400 people, while Israeli forces were slow to respond.

The operation came as “proof that Israel is weaker than a spider’s web” and one month into the war, it “has not been able to make any achievement,” he said.

At the same time, he distanced himself from the Hamas offensive, insisting that the Palestinian group planned the attack in secrecy and that Hezbollah had no part in it.

“This great, large-scale operation was purely the result of Palestinian planning and implementation,” Nasrallah said.

Faced by a relentless aerial bombardment and now a ground incursion by Israeli forces in Gaza, Hamas leaders have been pushing — sometimes publicly — for Hezbollah to widen its involvement in the war. Nasrallah met last week in Beirut with senior Hamas official Saleh Al Arouri and with Ziad Nakhaleh of an allied group.

However, Hezbollah officials have avoided publicly setting a specific red line, saying vaguely that they would join the war if they see that Hamas is on the verge of defeat. Instead, Hezbollah has taken calculated steps to keep Israel’s military busy on its border with Lebanon, but not to the extent of igniting an all-out war.

The Israeli military said seven of their soldiers and one civilian had been killed on the northern border as of Friday. More than 50 Hezbollah fighters and 10 militants with allied groups, as well as 10 civilians, including a Reuters journalist, have been killed on the Lebanese side of the border.

“Don’t test us," Netanyahu warned the Lebanese militant group on Friday. A mistake, he said, "will exact a price you can’t even imagine.”

Israel considers the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group its most serious immediate threat, estimating that Hezbollah has around 150,000 rockets and missiles aimed at Israel, as well as drones and surface-to-air and surface-to-sea missiles.

But a full-on conflict would also be costly for Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006 that ended with a draw — but not before Israeli bombing reduced swaths of southern Lebanon, the eastern Bekaa Valley and Beirut’s southern suburbs to rubble.

A new all-out war would also displace hundreds of thousands of Hezbollah’s supporters and cause wide damage at a time when Lebanon is in the throes of a historic four-year economic meltdown.

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